I remember my dad’s cousin Paul as an incredibly fun and light-hearted individual, the type of guy who wouldn’t hesitate to hang my nine-year old giggly self from my ankles, upside down, and sway me back and forth. Juxtaposed against this fond memory is the great sadness that my family faced when we learned he had drowned after capsizing his kayak in the quick current of the Quinnipiac River after a major storm. Paul’s paddling accident is like many other accidents across the United States.
In 2014, there were 165 fatal accidents involving paddlecraft, which encompasses non-motorized canoes, kayaks, stand up paddleboards, rowboats, and inflatable rafts. The majority (98%) of these were single-vessel accidents. Roughly three-quarters of these fatal accidents involved someone being turned out of the vessel, either through capsizing or falling overboard.
The causes of these fatal accidents vary. Approximately one-fifth of these fatal accidents involved hazardous waters, like Paul’s. Another fifth involved alcohol use. Many times multiple occupants will drink before launching a craft. When someone shifts their weight in the craft, it capsizes and a struggle ensues as the inebriated persons attempt to swim to shore. Improper loading of the vessel (usually related to the position of occupants in the vessel) and operator inexperience also were key causal factors. Sometimes the operator will take a recently purchased craft out on the water with very little boating experience. (Read Jim Emmon’s article to learn about the Water Sports Foundation’s outreach efforts.) In one 2014 case, an operator took a canoe he had purchased the week prior out with a friend. As they approached a sharp bend in the waterway, they lacked the navigation skills to maneuver the craft and capsized it, resulting in one death.
Boating alone can be risky as half of all fatal accidents involved single-occupant paddlecraft.
Although there were 165 fatal accidents in 2014, some accidents resulted in multiple fatalities, such that there were 172 fatalities from paddlecraft in 2014. The majority of victims (98%) died from drowning, and 80% of drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket. It is important to note that Paul wore a life jacket (and a helmet for that matter) and still drowned as he was stuck in turbulent water after capsizing.
Overwhelmingly, the gender of most victims was male (93%). The average age for fatal accident victims was 38 for females and 42 for males.
There has been an increased prevalence of accidents involving paddleboating in the United States. Ten years ago, fatalities on canoes and kayaks made up 10% of fatal victims; in 2014, they contributed 22%.
Although not all of the statistics presented in this article mirror those of Paul’s accident, they drive home some very important messages, including the importance of life jacket wear, the utility of on-the-water training, and a reminder to Boat Responsibly!
More information on boating may be found at the Boating Safety Division’s website, http://www.uscgboating.org.