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Safe boating

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Know the rules

 By Capt. Brylee

Special to the Beacon

While Florida waters provide great recreation and family fun for both tourists and residents alike, these waters can also be very dangerous. Because of the vast amount of coastline, fresh water sources and number of boaters, Florida ranks among the highest in the nation for water vessel accidents, injuries and deaths.

Summer vacationers, scallopers and grouper season attracts most of Florida’s boaters to the waters between the months of March and September, with the greatest number in the months of May and July. This is much in part to Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, the most popular holidays for families to be on the water.

Unlike other motorized vehicles, very few laws have been put into place to ensure each vessel operator is experienced enough to maneuver the vessel they are driving. In fact, if you were born before Jan. 1, 1988 no licensing or certification is required to operate watercraft. Law does now state that all operators born after this date are required to take a boaters safety course and be certified by FWC to legally operate any vessel over 10 horse power. Unfortunately though, most of the reportable boating accidents occur with the operators born before January of 1988. In fact 70-percent of accidents reported in 2012 were over the age of 36 with 39-percent being over the age of 51 and 31-percent between 36 and 50. This is largely due to the average age group of boat owners is over the age of 30.

According to statistical reports by the FWC and USCG, the number one cause of accidents is not properly looking out for objects in the water. This can be caused by distracted operators, operating in unfamiliar waters and operating boats during the night hours.

The most common site for boating accidents are in state waters and in the bay or sound with the second most common site being in the gulf or ocean. Rivers and creeks rank third in number of reportable accidents. The time of day most accidents occur are between the hours of 12 p.m. and 8 p.m. with the greatest number in the hours of 12 to 2 p.m. and 4-6 p.m.

The FWC statistical reports, broken down by county, show that Monroe County ranks first in number of accidents with 100 reportable accidents and five fatalities reported in 2012. Miami-Dade County ranked second with 81 accidents and three fatalities. Levy County ranked very well last year, reporting only two accidents and no fatalities and four injuries. This rank is 45th in the state out of 67 counties with 4,234 registered vessels. 3,890 of the reported vessels were recreational vessels.

The 2012 report also shows that while 76-percent of operators and occupants could swim, 68-percent were not wearing personal floatation devices (PFD). It also shows that 55-percent of accidents happen when the operator has no boaters education and 87-percent of operators being male.

State law requires a PFD for each occupant on a vessel and occupants under the age of six must wear a USCG approved type I, II or III PFD while onboard any vessel under 26-feet in length while the vessel is under way. This is any time the vessel is not anchored, moored or made fast to the shore or aground. 

In addition to PFDs, a noise device such as an air horn or coaches whistle is required on all vessels. Any vessel which is gas- or fuel-run must also carry at least one fire extinguisher. Vessels less than 16-feet must carry at least three visual distress signals approved for nighttime use when on coastal waters from sunset to sunrise. Vessels over 16-feet must carry three daytime and three nighttime signals at all times.

Most boating accidents can be avoided by proper operation of vessels and by boaters becoming very familiar with the waters they are in. Shifting tides and currents can and will change the structure of most waters. So, using extra care while on the water is still a necessity, even in waters operators are very familiar with.

A complete list of compliances can be found by visiting the FWC’s website and is broken down by type and size of the vessel. The largest deterrent of boating accidents is proper usage of the vessel and knowledge of the waters and operational skills needed to run said vessel. This boils down to being alert and educated.

Please obey all state and local laws and help keep our waters safe.