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Better boating news

Personal watercraft accident statistics are high despite Florida's improved boating safety record, the FWC says.

By MIKE SCARANTINO

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001


Personal watercraft accident statistics are high despite Florida's improved boating safety record, the FWC says.

Florida no longer is the No. 1 place in the nation to get killed on a recreational vessel.

Boating became safer last year, but there's cause for some concern and room for improvement.

Statistics compiled by the division of law enforcement at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) showed a decrease in the number of accidents and fatalities in 2000. Alcohol related accidents also declined.

Yet some statistics are a concern. When the subject of personal watercraft (PWC) comes up, the numbers -- while in decline since 1995 -- are disturbingly high.

Though they account for less than 13 percent of all registered watercraft in the state, PWCs were responsible for 32 percent of the accidents and over 45.7 percent of all injuries. The most troubling statistics are: Seventy-four percent of those accidents and injuries occurred on rented or borrowed vessels, and eighty percent of those involved in accidents require more than simple first aid.

Yes, personal watercraft are considered vessels. A few alterations to the rules apply where they are concerned, but they must be registered and conform to existing rules of the road. They need to carry a fire extinguisher, whistle and life jacket for each occupant. They are not allowed to operate at night, even if outfitted with proper lights.

Despite more stringent changes to livery laws (rental operators), underage and inexperienced operators are making their way onto area waterways.

Imagine mounting a high-speed motorcycle with little protection or experience and hurtling yourself or your child into high-traffic areas. The analogy may not be perfect, but it's a plausible comparison. The act just shouldn't be done. Not only does one put themselves at risk, but others as well. Personal watercraft are fun to ride, but there are rules that apply to all vessels operating in navigable waters.

Boating, whether recreational or commercial, has its historic roots buried deep in tradition and rule. Throughout that history only disciplined sailors returned safely from lengthy voyages. Their lives were full of hardship and toil. No aspect of seamanship was taken in a cavalier manner.

In today's high-speed, go-for-it world, however, cavalier seems to be the modus operandi when out for a day of fun on the water -- especially where PWCs are concerned. Fortunately for the Nature Coast, the farther north you travel, less waterborne traffic is experienced. In certain areas of the lower Nature Coast, jet skis or PWCs are becoming more and more a part of the traffic pattern.

Even with the decline in boating accidents, there is so much room for improvement.

The Florida Wildlife and Conservation Commission is the investigating authority for over 75 percent of all waterborne accidents. The FWC has collected impressive stats showing in detail the cause-and-affect relationships of those accidents. The commission's numbers show the need for more boater education and experience on the part of operators.

Of all PWC accidents, layman's math indicates that 59 percent of the time careless or reckless operation was the cause of the accident, as opposed to only 18.4 percent of boating recreational accidents. Those age 22-35 had the highest percentage of accidents while operating personal watercraft. Individuals 17-21 were the next likely group to be injured. Collisions with other watercraft were the primary occurrence. Most of those accidents happened in idle-speed, no-wake zones. Broken bones, lacerations and contusions topped the list of treated injuries. Doesn't sound like fun on the water, does it?

All the statistics point to one thing. More experience is necessary to ensure safety. It doesn't matter whether you're in a rowboat, power yacht, sailboat, or on a PWC or windsurfer, once on navigable waters, you are responsible for your safety as well as others operating in the area. Knowing the rules are just the beginning.

One livery operator is tough on his renters.

"I don't tolerate irresponsible horseplay on my skis," said Daniel Thompson of Set to Jet Ski rentals in Hudson. "If they don't or won't tow the line when it comes to the rules of the road, plus my rules, I'll yank that rental ski right off the water." Not only must his renters go through the required orientation about the operation of skis, Thompson -- atop another ski -- escorts them to the open water beyond Marker 14 of the Hudson channel.

"This way they can see the areas I call out of bounds for operation," he said. "Safety must come first."

For those less experienced operators, attending a basic boating course is strongly suggested. Contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, U.S. Power Squadron, or Coast Guard Auxilary in your area for the next available class.

It's what the prudent mariner would do.

- If you have a question or comment, call Capt. Mike Scarantino at (352) 683-4868.

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