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Florida reports the nation's most boating accidents. The Keys lead the state

Tom Bayles

Life jackets worn at all times would lessen possible tragedy, officials say. Alcohol or drug use played a role in 23% of fatalities last year, which is up 10% from 2022.

A deadly boating accident last year went like this:

A boat filled with people was cruising up a river on a July evening.

The captain ─ a sober, middle-aged man with no formal boater education ─ crashed his vessel into something immovable, such as a pier, rock jetty or seawall.

The fatality was a person older than 35 not wearing a life jacket. He was thrown from the vessel into the river and drowned.

That’s a nonscientific composite of a deadly boating crash using the data in this year's Boating Accident Statistical Report by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Florida agency responsible for enforcing boating regulations.

The FWC's report also tallies the previous year’s boating accident data, which details each incident's what, how and why, and the human results using statistics, charts and graphs.

In the composite example of a deadly boating accident, any one of three things would have almost certainly lowered the number of incidents and injuries: If the captain had formal boater education, which would have taught him to have a spotter; a slower speed; and life jackets fastened on everyone aboard.

If all three were in play, there’s a good chance the crash would not have happened, and, if it did, the person killed would have had a much better chance of surviving with a life jacket.

“Year after year, what we see is the leading cause of death in boating accidents is drowning,” said Capt. Rachel Bryant, leader of the FWC’s boating safety unit. “Life jackets save lives, and if people would just put on life jackets ─ we always talk about it, we always put that message out there ─ it really would reduce the number of drownings we see in these boating accidents.”

FWC data
This map highlights the 10 Florida counties with the most boating accidents in 2023.

Florida is often called the "boating capital of the world," however, more than 1 million registered vessels coupled with a subtropical climate lead it to also being the "boating accident capital of America" every year.

Florida leads the nation in boating accidents, with the Keys leading the state.

The Coast Guard reports 10 percent of all vessel incidents in 2023 occurred in the waters of the Sunshine State, nearly double the percentage in the next highest, California.

The FWC reports Florida’s boating opportunities inland, along the coast and offshore. Combine that with a diverse collection of boaters enamored with their days on the water, and that presents a challenge for the FWC and other local and federal maritime enforcement agencies.

In addition to enforcing boating rules and regulations, conducting boating safety campaigns, managing waterways and maintaining accurate signage, the FWC deals with derelict vessels and investigates stolen boats, vessel theft, and fish and wildlife crimes.

Bayles, Tom

But their highest-profile role is that of “water cop,” easily identifiable in boats decaled with a green line bordered by two gold stipes at an angle down both sides of the boat with a badge in the middle. Behind that, in matching green letters, is “Fish and Wildlife Commission.”

And if you’re still not sure, below the abbreviated agency name, in big, all-capital letters: “STATE LAW ENFORCEMENT.”

And the agency’s officers have ample opportunity to enforce boating laws in South Florida where all six coastal counties south of Lake Okeechobee are among the top 10 for vessel accidents. Monroe, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties are first, second, and third, respectively. Broward ranks sixth, Lee is eighth and Collier is ninth.

Pinellas ranks fourth, with St. Johns seventh and Citrus at No. 10.

Alcohol or drug use played a role in 23% of boating fatalities, which is up 10% from 2022.

People killed while riding personal watercraft more than doubled in 2023 compared with the year before, 12 to 5, respectively.

Bryant said a new contributor to the death and injury count is paddleboarders.

“It's a great entry-level into boating. which is exploding in popularity,” she said.

Paddle craft ─ paddle boards, canoes, kayaks ─ don’t have to be registered because they don’t have motors, so it’s unknown how many are moving lazily about in the rivers, bays and surf zones mixed within motorboats, but Bryant guessed the number is at least double the more than 1 million vessels registered in Florida.

Tom Bayles
FWC boats are easily identifiable by a green line bordered by two gold stipes at an angle down both sides of the boat with a badge in the middle.

“They don't feel that they're necessarily a boater so they're not wearing their life jackets,” she said. “They're just out there enjoying the afternoon on their paddle craft and nothing bad can happen. It's a lot of those folks that end up as part of our statistics.”

Boating Safety courses, tips

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Tom Bayles
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