Drinking, boating a lethal mix

The number of boating accidents and deaths in New York state has been steadily decreasing over the y

The number of boating accidents and deaths in New York state has been steadily decreasing over the years, but experts say the two primary factors in incidents remain unchanged: alcohol use and not wearing a life vest.

Blunt force trauma deaths — such as those of four Ulster County residents whose boat slammed into a concrete pier in the Hudson River early Sunday morning — are rare.

So too is a boat careening onto the shore and hitting a tree, as happened later Sunday, injuring four people on Lake Placid.

Lt. John Watterson of the Ulster County Sheriff’s Department said authorities have evidence that points to alcohol use on the boat that was torn apart when it hit the concrete footing near Red Hook.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2010 Recreational Boating Statistics report, there were more than 4,600 accidents and 672 deaths on U.S. waters last year — and alcohol use is cited as the leading contributing factor in those deaths.

But the majority of boating accident victims, nearly 75 percent, died because of drowning, and 88 percent of the dead weren’t wearing life jackets.

For the year 2010, inattention on the part of the operator, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed and alcohol ranked as the top five causes of accidents, according to the Coast Guard.


In terms of recreational boating accidents, New York state saw 27 fatalities last year, 23 in 2009 and 21 in 2008. Last year’s numbers tied the state with Michigan and South Carolina for fourth-deadliest, topped by 69 boating deaths in Florida, 48 in California and 28 in Texas.

Despite nearly 33,000 boats registered in Albany, Fulton, Montgomery, Saratoga, Schenectady and Schoharie counties, recreational boating fatalities are rare locally. According to 2010 statistics from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, there was a total of seven reported accidents and one death.

Those include two on Great Sacandaga Lake, one in Fulton County and the other in Saratoga County.

There were two accidents on the Hudson River — one in Columbia County and the other in Rensselaer County — one in Stewart’s Pond in Saratoga County and one in Schenectady County on the Mohawk River.

The fatality occurred in April 2010 on the Mohawk River in Sprakers, Montgomery County, when two men were fishing and their boat capsized. One made it to shore, the other drowned.


Compared with 20 years ago, recreational boating fatalities have been greatly reduced, according to Brian Kempf, director of marine services for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

“Over 20 years ago, you were losing approximately 50 people in boating accidents a year,” Kempf said. From 2006 to 2010, the average number of deaths was 21.8 — many of which could have been prevented with a flotation device.

In New York, boaters are required to have one life jacket for each person in the boat, but wearing them is not mandatory from April 1 to Nov. 1.

“Most of our fatalities occur due to unexpected immersion in cold water. In every case, nobody was using a life jacket. In many cases there wasn’t even one on the boat,” Kempf said.

The multifatal accident Sunday on the Hudson River is an anomaly.

The bulk of deaths have been attributed to unexpected falls overboard, Kempf said. “Clearly a life jacket would have made the difference.”

Such was the case last year, Montgomery County Undersheriff Jeff Smith said. Two men were fishing in April near Lock E-13 on the Mohawk River when their boat capsized. Neither was wearing a life jacket and one drowned.

“The first and most important thing is wearing proper flotation devices. In that incident we had back in April, they did not have them on. A lot of times people will have them in the boat, but that’s not always sufficient,” he said.

Other important considerations are remembering not to mix recreational boating with alcohol and drugs and to watch the speed limit.

And boating at night, Smith said, is somewhat dangerous unless boaters are familiar with the waterway. “If you’re going to travel at night if you’re not familiar with where you’re traveling, that can certainly be a problem.”


Nationwide there’s been a recent focus on raising awareness about drinking alcohol while boating. For three years now, members of law enforcement have conducted an annual campaign called Operation Drywater in hopes of getting people to realize the dangers.

“Alcohol is the leading contributing factor to fatalities on the water,” said John Fetterman, a spokesman for the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators which, in partnership with the Coast Guard, runs Operation Drywater and other programs.

Fetterman said recreational boaters seem unaware of the added risks associated with drinking while boating compared with drinking while driving.

“The reality is they’re at much greater risk in operating a motor boat when under the influence. It’s a big piece of machinery with no brakes, there’s no yellow line to follow when they’re trying to go home from a night at the bar,” Fetterman said.

And research, he said, has shown that the affects of alcohol are heightened while on the water — sunlight intensifies the impact of alcohol, and the stress of boating movement and wind also increases alcohol’s impact.

Categories: Schenectady County

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