Boating fatalities rise at record pace

Officers stress safety, alcohol rules for the Memorial Day weekend.

Published May 26, 2007

Michael Curl of Hernando Beach disappeared while fishing earlier this month. Tampa resident Sing F. Lee died in March after his kayak capsized in a channel off the Gandy Bridge.

The two deaths contributed to this year's record-setting pace of boating fatalities.

Officials fear it can only get worse, as the Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of boating season.

So far this year, 34 people have died in Florida in boating accidents. Three more are missing. Law enforcement officers fear this year could surpass the deadliest year for boaters on record, when 82 people died in 1995.

"Statistics show this is also a very deadly weekend on Florida's waterways," said Sgt. Jim Bordner, a spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

The Sheriff's Office, along with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, will have officers patrolling waterways and trying to prevent accidents. More than a dozen deputies will hand out T-shirts to children wearing their life vests and offer loaner vests to those who don't have them.

They'll also write tickets to boaters who behave recklessly, lack proper safety equipment or are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

"We want everybody to have a good time, but we also want to make sure everybody's around on Tuesday," said Karen Parker, the wildlife commission spokeswoman.

Most boating fatalities are a result of drowning, so officers will home in on life jackets, which children under 6 are required to wear. Adults don't have to wear life vests but they must have them available.

Last year, most boating deaths occurred after the victims fell overboard. None were wearing life jackets, Parker said.

It's unclear why fatalities are up this year. In 2005, the record was almost broken with 80 fatalities, but in 2006 the number dropped to 69.

One possible explanation for the increase in fatalities: Each year more people buy boats. More than 1-million boats were registered in 2006, an increase of 14, 000 from the year before, according to the conservation commission.

"Every year we see an increasing number of boaters on the water," said Gary Morse, a spokesman for the commission's southwest region. "Those people don't come from boating families, so they're not as familiar with the hazards on the water."

Alcohol also contributes to the death toll. Boating under the influence carries the same penalties as driving a car, with a minimum $250 fine and up to six months in jail. Last year, alcohol was a contributing factor in 15 percent of deaths.

Sgt. Bordner said the weekend forecast of wind and choppy waters doesn't bode well.

"That's a mix for a pretty dangerous weekend if people don't take the proper precautions," Bordner said.

Stephanie Garry can be reached at sgarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2374.

Fast facts: Boats and alcohol
Highlights of the state's boating under the influence law:

Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission