Those of us who have lived here in St. Pete long enough know that boats and the 4th of July can be a match made in heaven. But given a mishap, it can also end up being a match made in hell.
The 4th of July is one of the busiest holidays on the water in St. Pete or any coastal region of Florida. But it’s also the deadliest. The 4th usually dishes up great weather for being out on the water, but the number one reason for boating accidents isn’t bad weather conditions or rough seas, it’s boaters’ poor judgment.
The Most Common Causes of Boating Accidents
The U.S. Coast Guard has compiled a list of the most common causes of boating accidents. These include:
- Running out of gas
- Running aground
- Falling overboard
- Catching fire
- Breaking down
- Speeding at night
- Lacking appropriate safety gear
- Ignoring the weather
- Failing to see another vessel
- Navigating drunk
But truth be told, most of these come down to one thing: operator error.
Between the 4th of July, Memorial Day, and Labor Day, these holidays account for more than one-third of all boating accidents and fatalities in the United States. The number one main culprit: alcohol.
Boating and Alcohol Don't Mix
Alcohol use is the leading cause of fatal boating accidents today. In 2020, a full 23 percent of all boating fatalities in Florida were alcohol or drug-related.
Here in Florida, our laws against drunk boating are just as strict as those for drunk driving. The law prohibits anyone from operating a boat, water skis, sailboard, or any other similar watercraft with a BAC of .08 or over or under the influence of any controlled substance. Furthermore, you may even be cited for a BUI (boating under the influence) if you’ve consumed enough alcohol or drugs to have “impaired your normal faculties.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission appeals to boaters each year to take a safe and sober approach to the July 4th holiday. Their initiative, called Operation Dry Water, is focused on reducing the number of drug and alcohol-related accidents on our waters through awareness and an increase in law enforcement presence. But despite these initiatives, we still saw an increase in boating fatalities in 2020, up from the previous year.
Safe Boating Habits to Remember
Here in St. Pete, we celebrate July 4th out on the water as much as we do with fireworks and BBQs. But doing it safely is crucial. The Coast Guard Auxiliary offers tips for safe boating while out during these busy summer holidays.
- Wear a life jacket. We know. It’s hot, but accidents happen in the blink of an eye, and that leaves no time to locate and don a life jacket after the fact. Stats show that most people who died in boating accidents were not wearing a life jacket.
- Make sure your boat is properly equipped, and all equipment is operating properly.
- Make sure all your navigation lights are operating properly. The 4th is often the first time many boaters take their boats out after dark, and you will want to make sure that you’re seen.
- Make sure everyone on board understands basic safety procedures and how and who to contact for help in an emergency.
- Make sure that your emergency flares are up to date. Keep in mind that it’s against the law to light them in a non-emergency situation. They aren’t fireworks.
- Don’t drink and boat. The motion of the water and hours in the sun will only increase the effects of any alcohol consumption. Even for passengers, alcohol will reduce their ability to call for help if necessary. Keep in mind that marine law enforcement will be out in full force issuing citations.
- If you do plan on imbibing, designate a sober skipper and make sure that person knows how to navigate your boat safely.
- Don’t overload, no matter how many friends want to go out with you.
- Share a float plan. Let friends or family on shore know where you are going, who you are with, and when you plan to be back. If you’re not back by a reasonable amount of time after that, instruct them to contact someone.
- Keep watchful for other vessels, anything in the water, weather conditions, or anything else that may create a problem while you are out on the water. Report any emergencies or suspicious activity.
- Keep calm and courteous, and use common sense when you’re out on the water. Watch your wake, don’t cut others off, and never light fireworks from the deck of your boat.
If you plan to raft up with others to watch fireworks or just hang out on the water this July 4th, make sure you are especially careful. Even more seasoned boaters can be caught off guard when joining a large boating bash. Move at idle speed and slowly position yourself. Once everyone is in position, you can secure boats together. Only then should you cut the engine and throw the lines. Once connected, don’t expect to make any fast exits.
Novice boaters should minimize their risks in these crowded scenarios, especially after dark, considering the large crowds that are often expected for these large celebrations. Better to have a more experienced navigator take the helm after dark or when it is especially crowded.
Boating Safety is Concern Number One on the 4th
At Reef & Reel, we love being out on the water on the 4th of July (or any other day, for that matter.) But we believe that safe boaters are happy boaters. Have fun but stay safe. The life you save may be a friend’s, a family member’s, or even your own. We want to see you around for next year. Before you head out, stop by the store and load up on some cool headwear, sunglasses, or sunscreen. At Reef & Reel, we’ve always got you covered out on the water.