It’s no secret that 2020 was a banner year for participation in outdoor activities, including everything water-related. That was good news for certain industries and our overall well-being. One negative consequence, however, was a marked rise in boating-related accidents and deaths.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2020 Recreational Boating Statistics summary document, published this June, the U.S. recorded 767 boating fatalities, 154 more than in 2019, and the most in the past 20 years. Minnesota saw 16 deaths, six more than 2019, and the most since 2016.
That kind of statistic is exactly what people like Eric Bradt work day in and day out to prevent. Cmdr. Bradt has been with Ramsey County Water Patrol for over a decade and has seen the many safety mistakes that put people’s lives at risk. Unsurprisingly, patterns emerge.
The first he is quick to cite is that with the increasing popularity of stand-up paddleboards (SUPs), he is encountering many SUP users without personal flotation devices (PFDs). Paddleboards are considered watercraft in Minnesota, and users are required to have PFDs, as they are with boats of all kinds. “A lot of them will have the PFD strapped to the front,” he says, but points out that in a wind, a paddleboard—and the attached life jacket—will quickly be out of reach upon capsizing.
The second significant infraction Bradt says is encountered by the Water Patrol also revolves around PFDs. State law requires “children under 10 years old to wear a properly fitted life jacket while a boat is underway” (not tied up or docked). But as with paddleboarders, many boaters seem not to know.
While they have the power to issue written warnings and citations, Bradt explains the Water Patrol won’t always exercise that power. “We don’t like to issue citations.” That’s when education often comes into play.
Depending on the circumstances, boaters are often given a verbal warning and are informed of the applicable laws. The DNR supplies the Water Patrol with many copies of the current Boating Guide (Minnesota boating laws), which they dispense as needed. Brandt says, “We like to do a lot of education,” noting that it is usually received well. “Generally, people on the water are very cooperative.”
One thing Bradt says the Water Patrol has “very little tolerance” for, however, is boating while impaired (BWI). He knows alcohol is a variable in accidents that can be controlled. “If you can curb the alcohol, you can reduce the problems,” he noted.
This is true not just in Minnesota, but nationwide. The aforementioned Coast Guard report states that “Alcohol use is the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents.” As stated in the Minnesota Boating Guide, “The alcohol concentration for impaired operation is 0.08,” the same for driving motor vehicles. Bradt would like to see people separate boating and drinking altogether.
When it comes to people swimming in unsafe circumstances, Bradt says, “Fortunately, we haven’t seen a lot of that,” explaining that more people flocking to beaches in a year with less lifeguard coverage is a bad recipe. Still, he has observed instances of children swimming unattended and adults distracted by cell phones. Again, Water Patrol members will engage in education to address such safety concerns.
Educating the public about boating laws and safety principles goes a long way toward preventing accidents—if taken to heart. Overall, Bradt offers just a few safety tips which address most of the problems he routinely encounters. “The big thing is to have the PFD.” He also advises swimmers and boaters to limit alcohol, swim safely and know how to operate their watercraft.
Though water patrols make the rounds every day during summer, they depend to an extent on the public to be their eyes and ears on area rivers and lakes. Bradt urges people not to hesitate when they observe dangerous or reckless behavior: “If you see something, don’t be afraid to call us.”
Roy Heilman is a contributing writer for Press Publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-407-1200.