With three months left in the active boating season, Maryland has exceeded last year's total number of fatalities and is on its way to its deadliest year since 2005.
Ten people have died on the state's waterways, one more than last year, despite safety campaigns and concentrated enforcement by Natural Resources Police. In the majority of the accidents - including one last month involving an 11-year-old girl - the victims were not wearing life jackets.
The death toll concerns NRP officers because of its geographical sweep, from Deep Creek Lake to Eastern Shore rivers, and because of the wide variety of contributing factors, including poor judgment and weather. The most recent fatality, which occurred Sunday afternoon in Baltimore County, involved alcohol, police said. "People overestimate their boating skills," said NRP Capt. Robert Davis, a veteran of more than 20 years. "They think it's like driving a car, and it's not."
Since the 2004 and 2005 boating seasons, when the state had a total of 27 fatalities, NRP officers have worked to lower the total through increased patrols, especially on weekends and holidays. The combined total in 2007 and 2008 dropped to 19, putting Maryland in line with trends elsewhere.
Some boating experts say lower gas prices are allowing more boaters to go out this year.
"Nationally, fatalities took a dive last year when people stayed home because of the price of fuel. I think it created a pent-up demand, and we're seeing that released this year," said Chris Edmonston of BoatUS, the nautical equivalent of AAA.
Edmonston said that unlike driving a car, where repeated use sharpens skills, most boaters go out only a dozen times a year. Staying off the water last year may have made boating skills even rustier.
The situation in Maryland this year could have been worse: In June, an NRP officer rescued three people from the Chesapeake Bay after a freighter swamped their fishing boat and they were left clinging to two coolers. Two were wearing life vests and helped keep the third man afloat. Two other passengers wearing life jackets swam a mile to shore.
Tuesday morning, NRP Officer 1st Class Cindy Kondo, an 11-year veteran, patrolled the Severn River and the area off Annapolis to check for safety equipment. In just one hour, she warned one boat's passenger not to ride on the bow, wrote two warnings for missing equipment and tried to catch a boat speeding near City Dock.
She reminded boaters to wear a life jacket or have one nearby, to conduct an inspection to ensure a boat has all required safety equipment (a checklist is on the Department of Natural Resources Web site) and to file a float plan with a friend or family member so that search teams know where to look if you're overdue after a day on the water.
"It is amazing what people take for granted," said Kondo, who was decorated this year for rescuing five people from a disabled boat during a storm on the Chesapeake Bay.
Maryland boating fatalities peaked in 1979 at 37. In 1988, less than two years after the death of movie director Francis Ford Coppola's 22-year-old son in a boating accident near Annapolis, Maryland became the first state to require boaters to take a safety course. Every boater born after July 1, 1972, must pass the eight-hour course, which is given by several organizations and can be taken at the Department of Natural Resources Web site.
But Maryland lags behind other states in requiring the use of life jackets by children, saying those younger than 7 must wear a flotation device on board a boat that is 21 feet or shorter, rather than age 12 and 13, as is the case in many other states. Davis said Maryland is in the process of raising the life-jacket requirement to age 13.
That might have made a difference in one of the most-recent mishaps on the Sassafras River. On July 24, an 11-year-old girl from Earleville, riding on the bow of her family's 22-foot motorboat, was thrown overboard when the boat stuck the large wake of a passing tugboat.
"By the time her father turned around, he could not find the spot where she went under," NRP Sgt. Art Windemuth said. "If she had been wearing a life jacket, the likelihood of rescue was high. Statistically, 80 percent of all deaths related to boating accidents could be prevented by wearing life jackets."
Recovery crews found her body almost two days later, within a half-mile of where she fell in.
Life jackets might have made a difference for several adult victims as well.
In an April accident on the Nanticoke River in which two men drowned in stormy conditions, a kayaker saw the boat overturn and paddled to the scene, "but they were gone," said Windemuth. One body has not been recovered.
Last month, a 39-year-old man jumped from a boat for a swim in the South River near Annapolis and began to flail about in the water. Attempts to throw him flotation devices were thwarted by high winds and waves.
"In all of those cases, help was on the way," said Windemuth. "A few more minutes on the surface with a life jacket would have improved their chances."