Escalating boating accidents spur concern, caution among boaters

LITTLE ROCK, Ar (AGFC) - Warm weather plus a glittering expanse of water spark boating excursions, but tragedy can invade even the most polished of plans. To date, 12 fatalities have resulted from boating accidents in 2009, a spike considering last year's 14 total fatalities.

Drowning is most often the cause of death: of the 11 found bodies (one is missing), 10 had drowned, stressing the importance of wearing life jackets.

"They [the victims] either weren't wearing one properly or at all," said Capt. Stephanie Weatherington, AGFC boating law administrator. "In most of these accidents, they actually had the life jackets on board."

In addition to 2009's already high number of fatalities, 42 boating accidents have been reported; in contrast, 29 accidents had been reported by this time last year.

Weatherington cited several reasons for this year's rise in accidents and fatalities. Early warm spells-even in February-have attracted boaters to the water, allowing for a longer boating season and more chances for accidents. High floodwaters have covered areas in lakes otherwise not navigable, sometimes littered with stumps and debris just below the surface that can harm boats at high speeds. But by far, most accidents in any year are collisions from "operator inattention," when navigators fail to pay attention to their surroundings.

To prevent accidents and fatalities, Bob Cushing, AGFC boating education coordinator, recommended that boaters make wearing U.S.-Coast-Guard-approved life jackets a priority.

"There's no excuse for not wearing a life jacket," Cushing said. "Make sure it fits you; make sure it's snug. It's like any other piece of clothing."

Cushing suggested that boaters test their life jackets by wearing one and wading into shallow water in a pool or lake to see if it will float your body.

Escalating boating accidents spur concern, caution among boatersAdditionally, defensive boaters operating a vessel should refrain from drinking or using drugs; take care to not overload their boats; be attentive and keep a proper lookout; and take a boating education course. Individuals born after 1985 are lawfully required to complete a boater's education course before operating a powerboat, sailboat or personal watercraft in Arkansas, but Cushing encourages every boater to take the course regardless of age. A boating education course can be completed in the following ways: in an instructor-led course free of charge, online for $15, or via a home study course which includes a DVD or video available for purchase online. For more information about boating courses, visit and click on "Boating Education."

Cushing said boating accidents peak around the 4th of July, so holiday boaters are especially encouraged to practice caution.

"The majority of accidents happen when weather conditions are good," Cushing said.