By Janis Fontaine
For kids who are regularly out on the water, it’s important to learn how to be safe on a boat.
The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary offers classes to youths as young as 11 years old.
Boating has always been popular for South Floridians, but during the pandemic boating boomed. Families turned to boating as a coronavirus-safe activity parents could share with their children. The demand drove up prices and caused shortages of both boats and dock space.
In March 2022, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced Florida had passed the 1 million mark for registered recreational vessels. Minnesota, with about 900,000 boats, is a distant second nationally.
But with more boats come more boat accidents.
An accident is an accident, but what bothers Flotilla Cmdr. Phil Petito and staff officer Stuart Oliver, both volunteers at the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 3-6 in Spanish River Park, is that many of these accidents are preventable.
According to the FWC, there were 79 boating fatalities in Florida in 2020, up 16% from 2019 and the highest total since 2011.
Where cause of death was known, 81% of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims, 83% were not wearing life jackets. Experts estimate 1 in 4 boating accident victims is younger than age 20, and 1 in 10 boating fatalities is a person younger than 20.
Since Jan. 1, 2010, anyone born after Jan. 1, 1988, must obtain a Boater Education Identification Card issued by the FWC to operate a motorboat (including a personal watercraft) of 10 horsepower or greater. To get a card, the individual must successfully complete an approved boating safety course.
But the quality of courses varies widely, and research has shown that the online class isn’t much better than getting no training at all.
According to the same FWC report, where instruction was known, 75% of deaths occurred on boats where the operator did not receive boating safety instruction. Only 16% of deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had received a nationally approved boating safety education certificate.
When experts analyzed factors contributing to the accidents, operator inattention was No. 1 and operator inexperience was No. 2.
These statistics are nothing new to the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Petito recommends a class called “Suddenly in Command” for anyone, including teenagers, who loves boating, but never expects to end up at the helm.
“I made my wife take it,” Petito said.
The class is designed so an inexperienced person can step in during an emergency. It’s natural to think about who will fly the plane if the pilot has a heart attack, but what if the captain of your vessel is incapacitated? Would you know how to call for help? How to get the boat back to safety? Where the emergency equipment is located?
Classes for kids are low-cost, thanks to grants from businesses that subsidize the costs for young people, said Andrea Rutherfoord, the Flotilla 3-6 human resources director. Community support and donations for more classes would be welcomed.
That teenage group can benefit most from one of the boating classes the auxiliary offers. Access to a boat or personal watercraft comes with responsibilities. It is necessary to have basic equipment on board, and knowledge of rules for navigating among other boats.
One thing that’s not required, but perhaps should be, Petito said, is the Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon — EPIRB for short. It costs about $500. A small personal locator beacon is available for $300-$400. These devices connect to a satellite to announce your location to rescue authorities if you’re ever lost.
78 volunteers in the auxiliary
Flotilla 3-6 has 78 members who volunteer their time “to support the operation of the Coast Guard, promote and improve recreational boating safety, and provide trained crews and facilities to enhance the safety and security of U.S. ports, waterways and coastal regions.”
To join, members must be 17 or older and U.S. citizens. They must become members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary Association Inc., which requires the successful completion of the application, passing a new members exam and a clean background check.
Oliver and Petito stress that boating safety also means teaching kids about marine wildlife and plant life like manatees and sea grasses, which are collateral victims of busy waterways.
Manatee-vs.-boat accidents are part of the problem, but so are habitat destruction and garbage and litter, especially plastics.
Oliver and Petito have friendly, helpful demeanors that serve them well as boaters’ allies on the water.
They know their way around a boat and performing safety checks is one of their primary responsibilities. From bow to stern, they look for the right equipment in the right place, and ensure it is in good working condition. From life jackets to fire extinguishers to running lights, they’ll check your boat, make suggestions and answer your questions. It’s not an annoying chore to them. And it’s free.
Any boater who tells you there’s no such thing as a bad day on the water is exaggerating. It doesn’t take long for things to go downhill. Freak thunderstorms. Rogue waves. Floating debris.
A safety check and a solid bit of knowledge can be the difference between a good memory and a bad one.
Oliver is scheduled to teach an 8-hour class on Dec. 3 at Spanish River Park. Cost is $5 for teens. For more information on classes, visit wow.uscgaux.info/peclass.php?unit=085-03-06.