ANNAPOLIS – Boating deaths in Maryland last year were nearly double the average annual number recorded by the Department of Natural Resources in the past decade, and unusually warm weather could be a major reason for the jump.
From 2001 to 2010, the average number of deaths per year was about 12.7, according to data from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Last year, 24 people died.
Normally, most accidents, injuries and fatalities occur during the summer months, often peaking in July, when the water is warm and there are many more recreational boaters.
But accidents can occur at all times of the year, and last year’s warmer than usual weather had mild temperatures as early as April, and stretching to the fall months.
Sgt. Art Windemuth, spokesman for the Natural Resources Police, said the most common factors in boating accidents are time of day, day of week and time of year.
These all tend to follow a similar pattern, he said.
“We can see that they coincide with warm, hot weather during the weekend and during the time of day when it’s the best time to be out,” Windemuth said.
These patterns emerge because recreational boaters make up the majority of those on the water.
“What usually kicks it off is Memorial Day,” said Blair O’Connell, a boater from La Plata whose boat is docked in St. Mary’s County.
O’Connell said he is usually out on the water during the period from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and that is when he sees the most boaters.
I’m usually out 10 to 12 weekends in the summer, he said.
Windemuth said last year’s unusually warm weather, with less distinction between seasons, contributed to the jump in fatalities.
However, though the weather was mostly mild throughout the year, cold air and water temperatures were still a risk.
Several of the recorded fatalities occurred in December when water and air temperatures were in the 40s, making hypothermia a serious risk.
When we’re dealing in the 30s and 40s, survival is measured in only a matter of minutes, Windemuth said.
“I think the most important thing to remember is we’re a boating community,” said Jim Stewart, the dockmaster at the Annapolis Landing Marina.
Stewart said though the milder temperatures tend to attract more people, Maryland is a state where boating is very common and there will always be some unfortunate accidents.
“Real boaters boat in all conditions,” Stewart said.
Though the number of boating fatalities was up last year, overall boating accidents decreased about 15 percent from 219 in 2010 to 186 in 2011.
During the legislative session this year, the Department of Natural Resources supported several bills that would affect water activity and safety in Maryland, including a bill to require permits for large gatherings of boats, and a bill which would help increase the number of Natural Resources Police Officers.
The bill on marine gatherings passed in both houses.
The Natural Resources Police Officers bill, on the other hand, passed unanimously in the Senate, but failed to get out of the House of Delegates.
Windemuth said legislation submitted is targeted at protecting citizens and improving conditions on the waterways, but he said it’s too soon to judge the effect any proposed or implemented bills could have on boating in Maryland.
“Only time will tell,” Windemuth said.
Note: Accompanying graphic only includes the 20 deaths in 2011 that were investigated by the Department of Natural Resources. The other four were handled by other agencies.