According to statistics from the United States Coast Guard, there were 658 boating fatalities in the year 2021. That was a decrease from 2020 which saw 767 deaths on the water. The leading known contributing factor in all of these deaths was the use of alcohol. According to their numbers, 86 of those fatalities were a direct result of alcohol use, or 16% of the fatalities. 

It’s worth remembering that alcohol isn’t the biggest contributing factor to accidents or serious injuries in general. Operator inattention actual ranks as the top cause of boating accidents. In fact, alcohol use ranks as the 6th biggest cause of accidents. However, when you focus just on fatalities, it unfortunately rockets to number one. The second closest is hazardous waters with 68 fatalities and operator inexperience coming in third with 65 deaths.

What Leads to Fatal Boating Accidents?

Often there are a number of things that work together that lead to deaths on the water. After all, just drinking alone is unlikely to lead to a fatality unless the person literally dies of alcohol poisoning. So there are other factors that go hand in hand with this and with the other causes. In some cases it may be alcohol combined with unsafe speed and a lack of life jacket, for instance. So each of those three things are contributing factors and, across the board, the Coast Guard has determined that alcohol was one factor that was more prevalent than all the others in terms of fatalities. 

With that in mind, these are some of the other most common contributing factors that may come with alcohol use and lead to accidents and deaths on the water.

  • Not wearing a life jacket. This may be the biggest contributing factor alongside alcohol use. 81% of the fatalities recorded were drownings. Of those victims, 83% of them were not wearing a life jacket.  That works out to 399 people who drowned because they were not wearing a life jacket. Another 49 died of trauma when not wearing a life jacket. If you are a boat operator, also remember to make sure your passengers are wearing life jackets.
  • Lack of safety training. Some boat operators take it for granted that all they need to do is buy a boat and head out on the water. But, just like you need to learn how to operate a car safely, the same goes for boating. According to the USCG, in 2021, 75% of deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had not received boating safety instruction. Only 16% of fatalities occurred on boats in which the operator had taken safety instruction courses. The difference is due to information not being known. 
  • Falling overboard: Again, this is another factor that probably requires additional conditions. So drinking, excess speed, unsafe operating, all of these things can lead to a person falling overboard. Based on the numbers from 2021, 24 of the fatalities occurred because someone was struck by a propeller after falling overboard. 
  • Capsizing, sinking, running aground: Much more rare but still a very clear danger are the accidents that occur when another boat is not involved. Alcohol can, of course, be a major reason why any of these might occur.
  • Collisions: Unsafe conditions, lack of safety training, excessive speed, and operating while intoxicated are the most common contributing factors that lead to boat crashes.

Where Do Most of these Deaths Occur?

On a state by state breakdown, Florida suffers the most alcohol related fatalities. In 2021, 13 reported deaths happened in Florida. The next closest was Louisiana with 8 fatalities and finally Texas with 7 to round out the top three. 

Florida is consistently the state with the most fatalities related to boating, year over year. This is due, in part, because there are just more boats and boaters in Florida than most other states. 

Is One Type of Boat More Prone to Having a Fatal Boating Accident?

While it’s hard to point to definite causation as it relates to a specific kind of boats, there are stats that show which types of boats were involved in the most fatalities. When the size of the boat was known, a full 75% of fatalities occurred on boats that were 21 feet in length or shorter.  For 2021, the numbers are:

  • Motorboats: Coming in at number one, 44% of fatalities were related to motorboats. This does seem to make sense as the combination of speed with other factors like alcohol use create an unsafe environment. There were 287 deaths on an open motorboat in 2021. 
  • Kayaks/Canoes: It may be a surprise to see kayaks and canoes in second with 15%. But, as they are operated alone, and are easy to flip, a kayak or canoe operated by someone who is drinking or not wearing a PFD can be very dangerous. 142 fatalities were related to canoes and kayaks in 2021.
  • Pontoons: Pontoons are often considered very safe and stable but as their popularity rises so too do the chances for them to be misused. They ranked 3rd in 2021, being involved in 10% of boating fatalities or 64 deaths in total.

The statistics for accidents, in general, are different, and personal watercraft and cabin motorboats round out the top three after motorboats for accidents, but those are non-fatal. People are often under the impression PWC are in the top three for fatal accidents, but they are not, at least for 2021. That doesn’t mean they weren’t close, of course, with 55 deaths related to PWC last year.

The Bottom Line

Based on data collected by the United States Coast Guard, most boating deaths have alcohol as the primary cause, although there are other factors that can combine with this. These include things like people not wearing their life jackets, and also operators who are not properly trained in boat safety procedures. Most fatalities occur on open motor boats, while pontoons and canoes and kayaks round out the top three for boats on which most fatalities occur.