Boating Accidents: What You Need to Know and Do

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on July 25, 2021. In Boats

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Statistics show that recreational boating accidents have been decreasing for the last 20 years. There were 4168 boating accidents logged by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2019. That included 2559 injuries and 613 boating fatalities. In the year 2000 there were 7740 boating accidents and 701 boating fatalities. So while accidents have decreased, boating fatalities are still high overall.

Understanding what to do in the face of recreational boating accidents is important. This can minimize injuries and deaths. Of course, being trained in how to handle a boat is your best defense. Operator inexperience is a great contributor to boat accidents. Avoiding an accident is always the best option. But when that can’t happen, it’s good to know how to proceed.

What Causes Most Boating Accidents?

There can be a number of contributing factors to recreational boating accidents. Let’s take a look at some of the most common causes of boating accidents.

Inexperienced Operator: An operator who does not know how to handle a boat is dangerous. Automobile drivers need training and a license, right? Boat operators need to have training as well. Too often an unskilled boater tries to operate a watercraft. That can lead to accidents and fatalities.

Alcohol: Alcohol use is the leading contributor to fatal boating accidents. Alcohol use was involved in 19% of boating fatalities. This is according to recreational boating statistics from 2018.

Weather: Many boaters are surprised to learn how little weather contributes to boating accidents. The majority of boating accidents occur during calm weather. That’s because people are less cautious during these times. Sunny weather conditions lead to overconfidence. Operator inattention thanks to calm seasons can be fatal. If a boater feels like the vessel is in no danger, they may overlook things. This can lead to all kind of accidents even with no hint of rain or wind. Bad weather is still one of the causes of boating accidents. But it is not the only weather to worry about.

Machinery Failure: This is a rare cause of recreational boating accidents. Still, it’s not unheard of for an accident to happen thanks to a faulty motor or other machinery failure. This is why doing a vessel safety check before boating is important. You should test all essential equipment before leaving.

Lack of Safety Equipment: The US Coast Guard regulation requires every person on a vessel to have access to a life jacket. They should know where it is and how to get it on. In 2018, 80% of boating accident victims who drowned were not wearing life jackets. This is another aspect of operator inexperience. People think that it won’t happen to them, so it’s not important. Or that they’re strong enough swimmers.

Instability: The fact is, water is an unstable medium. Small boats especially are subject to tipping over, especially if the water is rough. If people on board are not being safe, the potential to capsize the boat increases. This is also true of overloaded boats. Fortunately, most small boats made since 1978 have flotation included in the design. That means the vessels will float even if capsized. You may be able to stay with the boat to stay afloat in emergency situations.

When Do You File a Boating Accident Report?

Not every boating accident is a serious one. Sometimes you may just run aground, maybe scrape the hull. And if your friends are goofing around and fall in the water, does that even count as an accident? How do you know when and what to report?

Luckily, there are rules that cover recreational boating accidents. These let you know if and when an accident requires a formal report or not. In order for a boating accident to be reported, it must meet one of the following criteria;


  • A report must be filed in the event of a boating fatality
  • Also if there is an injury that requires medical attention beyond first aid
  • Someone on the boat has gone missing


  • A complete loss of the vessel
  • Damage to the vessel in excess of $2000
    • In some states this may be lower than $2000, so you’ll need to check local regulations

Timeline: Accidents must be reported within a certain timeframe as well.

  • Fatalities must be reported within 24 hours
  • Accidents requiring medical attention must be reported within 48 hours
  • Accidents causing damage must be reported within 10 days.

How to Prevent Boating Accidents

Statistics show the numbers of recreational boating accidents have decreased. That said, they are still too high. The fatality rate has barely changed at all. The best thing you can do as the operator of vessels is learn how to prevent any and all accidents. There are several steps to take.

Certification: The US Coast Guard and others offer certification courses. You can learn the proper way to control and operate your vessel. It’s just like driver’s ed for a motor vehicle. However, this can also explain emergency procedures. This can be vital info in an emergency situation.

Boating Safety Course: A number of local boating groups and marinas offer these. It is not the same as full certification. You can get boating safety instruction that can help keep you and passengers safe.

Safety Equipment: It is vital to have proper safety equipment on board. This includes things such as:

Proper Boating Techniques: This includes understanding what you should and should not do on a boat. That means things like;

  • Not loading more gear than vessels can safely handle. Weight distribution is vital for a safe boat. Likewise, the process of just loading gear can be dangerous. Do so safely and get help if need be.
  • Doing a proper vessel safety check ahead of time.
  • Inspecting all the elements to make sure they are in good working order.
  • Not consuming excess alcohol. In the hot sun, the effects of alcohol can be increased. You should never operate a vessel on the water while drinking.
  • Understanding the rules of the road and how to navigate around other vessels.
  • Proper docking procedures to avoid property damage.
  • Maintaining safe speed while boating. Just as on roads, excess speed is a danger.
  • Monitor the weather. You should always know the weather for the day before heading out on a boat. Even though accidents happen on calm seas, storms are very dangerous.
  • Pay attention. Operator inattention was a major cause of injuries every year. Boaters need be on the lookout for what passengers and other boaters are up to.

The Bottom Line

No one plans to have an accident, that’s why they’re accidents. But you can plan to avoid them or deal with them. Keeping a calm head and following procedures can prevent injury and loss of life.

The best thing you can do is take a course in proper boat operation and safety. The U.S. Coast Guard offers these. Statistics show that certified operators suffer far fewer accidents. Likewise, avoid alcohol if you’re operating a boat. Many operators want to have fun with friends and enjoy a drink or two. But every drink puts you more at risk.

About Ian

My grandfather first took me fishing when I was too young to actually hold up a rod on my own. As an avid camper, hiker, and nature enthusiast I'm always looking for a new adventure.

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1 Comment

  • Angela Waterford on January 9, 2020

    I think I’ll need the help of a lawyer to assist me in filing a boat accident report. As you’ve mentioned, one of my friends had been injured in the boat charter we rented which requires her to get medical treatment beyond first aid. We were sitting inside the boat yesterday and we were busy fishing when the motor behind us suddenly burst into flames, and some of its shrapnels got into her eye, and now she needs surgery to get it removed, so I hope that this counts.


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