If you are a recreation boater, May marks the beginning of the most dangerous time of year. The sultry days of summer make cool lakes and rivers an inviting refuge, but they can be deadly.
Last year in Pennsylvania, recreational boating accidents claimed 22 lives. That almost doubles the last 10-year average of 12 victims per year; that's 15 more boating deaths than reported in 2010; and it's the second highest number of boating deaths in Pennsylvania since 1992.
Such numbers make boating seem extremely dangerous. Too often, however, boaters are their own worst enemy. Only three of the 22 Pennsylvania victims wore a life jacket at the time of their accidents. And in 16 of the other 19 accidents, there were functional life jackets on the vessel. Violate the first rule of safety in any activity, and tragic disasters can follow.
Each of the fatal incidents is described in the May/June issue of Pennsylvania Boater & Angler. The story, by Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission Boating and Watercraft Safety Manager Ryan Walt, should be required reading by all recreational boaters (http://fishandboat.com/angon.htm).
Spring and summer are the most dangerous times of year simply because that's when conditions are best for boating. Of the 22 Pennsylvania fatalities, 20 occurred in May through August. But warm air temperatures do not ensure safe boating conditions.
Water has a high specific heat. That means it takes a lot of energy to raise its temperature. So even on hot summer days, water temperatures might only reach the mid- to upper 70s. Prolonged immersion in sub-body temperature water can induce fatal hypothermia. In fact, sudden immersion into cold water was a factor in seven of the deaths, and six of those accidents involved canoes or kayaks.
Alcohol also was a factor in four of the fatalities. Drinking while boating is no safer than drinking while driving. Just a little self-control can save lives. Boaters should also consider the safety of their passengers as well as other boaters when on the water.
All but two of the Pennsylvania victims were men, with an average age of 57. Only three wore life jackets at the time of their accidents. Neither of the two female victims wore life jackets.
The numbers from Ohio tell a similar tale. In 2011, 14 people died in recreational boating accidents (12 were male). Alcohol use was implicated in six of the deaths, and 13 of the 14 victims were not wearing life jackets.
In West Virginia, six people died in boating accidents last year, and only two of the six were wearing life jackets (and those were running whitewater).