Maryland's deadly waters

Common sense and caution can save Maryland boaters' lives

August 17, 2010

If you are out on the water and get tossed overboard, as happened over the weekend when a boat carrying two men struck a buoy in the Elk River in Cecil County, your chances of survival increase markedly if you are wearing a life jacket.

Initially, the two boaters involved in the accident late Saturday night were not wearing life jackets. One donned a jacket as he floundered. Later, he was rescued and taken to an area hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. The body of the other, who was operating the 28-foot power boat, was discovered by searchers Monday evening. Police say they suspect alcohol was a factor in the incident.

This bring the toll of boating fatalities in Maryland waters to 11 this year, which puts the tally on pace with last year's grim total of 17 deaths. Of those 17, 16 were not wearing personal flotation devices.

According to U.S. Coast Guard national statistics, almost 80 percent of the people killed in boating accidents are not wearing life jackets or other personal flotation devices

This is distressing, especially given how simple the problem would be to remedy. Laws requiring the use of life jackets have focused on children. In Maryland, anyone under the age of 13 is required to wear a personal flotation device when aboard a moving vessel under 21 feet long. Children under age 4 must wear a life jacket that is secured with a strap between the child's legs and that has a buoyant headrest. This went into effect last April, following a July, 2009 incident in which an 11-year-old girl, who was not wearing a life jacket, died after falling off the bow of her family's boat in the Sassafras River on the Eastern Shore.

Boating fatalities continue in Maryland despite an increased emphasis on boating safety and increased enforcement by the Department of Natural Resources. To its credit, Maryland requires that a would-be boater must pass an eight-hour course on boating safety to become a certified operator. Unfortunately, the requirement does not apply to all captains, only to those born after July 1, 1972.

Some wisdom does come with age. But just because you are at least 38 years old, that doesn't mean you are immune to accidents. The boat operator in the Elk River incident, Deforrest Timlin of Rising Sun, was 49.

The answer to improved boating safety does not lie solely with regulations. Many boating accidents involve reckless behaviors — speeding, inattention and alcohol use — that go beyond failure to wear life jackets. A sense of personal responsibility and good seamanship are essential components for skippers of all vessels.

Maryland is blessed to have so many beautiful and accessible waterways. For many boaters, a day on the water is a tonic. But some humility and respect for the power of nature are required for a successful outing.

As the DNR's Captain Robert Davis told The Baltimore Sun's Candus Thomson last year, when discussing boating accidents, "people overestimate their boating skills." It's a miscalculation that too often proves deadly.

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