Will you survive a boating accident?

The bass boat was on plane, running around 60 MPH, heading out of Elk River on Wheeler Lake. In a micro-second, the bow jerked to the side when the steering cable severed. Both anglers were instantly ejected from the boat.

Both were wearing life jackets. The two men did not sustain life-threatening injuries although injuries just the same. The life jackets kept their heads above water while other nearby bass boats raced to their rescue.

That is a true story that happened in the seventies to two area bass fishermen, Ray Gresham and the late Paul Cantrell, both from Florence, Alabama. The recounting of the event is an obvious lead-in to one of the main themes of this article – “You got a life vest in the boat. Wear it. If you don’t, park it.”

Dead in the water

Fatalities in Alabama boating accidents are often due to the person drowning due to an inability to swim, incapacitating injury or being unconscious when hitting the water. Why? The victims were not wearing a U.S. Coast Guard approved portable flotation device or PFD.

Unfortunately, some boat accidents are fatal to one or more passengers/drivers even if that person was wearing a PFD. Those are exceptions and they do happen. However, exceptions should not be a viable “excuse” for not wearing a PFD style for the type of boat/boating activity you are participating in.

As for us old bass chasers, the importance of keeping a U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD secured to us becomes even more important. My endurance in the water is a LOT shorter than when I was lifeguarding as a summer job while in college. I can imagine most other aging anglers are probably in the same “boat”. A PFD would be a true lifesaver for my crowd.

Usually, the majority of high-performance bass boat operators only wear a PFD while the “big” motor is running. However, wearing an appropriate style PFD while moving around on the boat deck in rough water, night fishing or cold weather would be prudent. Alabama law also requires wearing a PFD within 800 feet of a dam.

U.S. Coast Guard approved portable flotation devices (and kill switches) are more important than all of your rods, reels, and lures because the former can save your life, the latter won’t.

A re-entry ladder/device for getting back into the boat is also a very important piece of equipment on a boat of any kind. The boarding ladder is a MUST on any boat 16 feet or longer or the minimum of a pull-up rope.

Alabama Marine Police and Wildlife Officers say to have at least a large diameter rope with a stirrup loop at one end and the other end firmly attached to the interior of the boat or cleat. The rope can be used by a person in the water to pull themselves back in the boat with one foot in the stirrup to climb out of the water. The length of the rope should be long enough for an adult to be able to put their foot in the loop while in water and push themselves up high enough to pull themselves back into the boat. Coldwater and winter clothing makes all this even more difficult. In an emergency, a few have even used the motor’s power trim to help a person in the water get back in the boat by riding the motor up out of the water when no ladder or rope was onboard.

Fatal statistics

In 2017 Alabama ranked sixth in the country with 21 boating accidents and 32 fatalities. Nationwide, 4,291 boating accidents were reported with 658 fatalities and 2,629 injuries.

The 25 fatal boating accidents in Alabama, for the first six and a half months of 2019, did not involve a bass boat. That’s not to say the same was true for 2017 and 2018 or for the forty-three non-fatal 2019 boating accidents.

The fatal boating accidents involved ski boats, runabouts, cruisers, pontoon boats, a kayak, and wave runners. Lives might have been saved and injuries prevented if a few common-sense precautions had been taken: Wearing PFDs; No alcohol onboard; and boating traffic awareness-especially at night.

Lives needlessly lost

The fatal boating accidents across Alabama so far in 2019 surpass year-end totals for at least the past 20 years. In July alone, there have been 12 crashes with six deaths so far.

The following are some details of ten of those fatal boat accidents (al.com).

April    Robert Ellison, 32, was killed in early April on the Mobile River. His body was discovered four days later. His body was found in the river just south of the I-65 General Wilson Bridge. Authorities said he was the driver of a boat that hit something and ejected Ellison and a passenger. The passenger was able to swim to shore.

May 25    Jerome Marks, 56, was killed May 25 on the Tennessee River near Talucah Landing, southeast of Decatur. Authorities said Marks drowned while riding a personal watercraft. ALEA reported that Marks had not been wearing a personal flotation device when he fell from the craft. As reported by Huntsville-based WHNT, boaters said they noticed the watercraft circling and found the man floating in the water.

June 8    Lauren Cowart, 37, and her daughter, Blakely, 5, were killed in a two-vessel crash on Wilson Lake. The crash happened about 10:40 p.m. that Saturday night near the mouth of Shoal Creek, near Killen in Lauderdale County. The Augusta, GA. residents were pronounced dead on the scene. Ross Wooten III, 33, of Muscle Shoals, sustained serious injuries.

June 26    Ti’ran Edwin, 20, and another man were thrown overboard during a boating accident June 26. The pair disappeared after a steering cable broke and threw them and one other person overboard Wednesday night. A third person on the boat was rescued Thursday. One of the bodies was recovered around 11 a.m. Thursday, June 27, and the other was found around 8:17 p.m. that same day.

July    A father-daughter collision of their two watercraft resulted in the death of the father and the daughter losing a leg.

July 3    Russell “Rambo” Patterson, a U.S. Army veteran, was found dead about 3:15 p.m. Wednesday, July 3, in Lake Cosby in Jefferson County. The discovery ended an exhaustive search that began the night before when he failed to return home after fishing. His kayak and paddle were found, but there was no sign of him until the following day.

July 4    Kelsey Starling disappeared and is presumed dead after 10 p.m. July 4 boat crash on Smith Lake. The 26-year-old Starling was a passenger in a 2012 Mastercraft wakeboard boat driven by 23-year-old William Jackson Fite of Decatur. Fite was booked into the Winston County Jail early July 5 on a charge of boating under the influence and has since been released on $2,000 bond. Four other passengers on the Mastercraft were transported for medical attention by emergency responders, said Marine Patrol Sgt. Chad Pate. One person was injured in the second vessel, a 2011 Harris Flotebote pontoon boat operated by 50-year-old Jodi Wallace Suggs of Decatur.

July 4    Travis House, 17, of Marbury, was one of two people killed on Lake Jordan north of Montgomery around 10 p.m. on July 4. Five people were transported to area hospitals after two boats collided near the mouth of Weoka Creek. A 19-foot Sea Hunt center console boat driven by Caleb Peters and a 19-foot Maxum runabout boat drive by Damion Bruno collided near the mouth of Weoka Creek. It wasn’t immediately clear how many passengers were on each vessel but five people were transported to area hospitals – one of them via helicopter. House’s body was recovered two days later.

July 5    Maggie Tackett, 12, of Mississippi, died Friday, July 5, on Smith Lake. Two other children, a 14-year-old-boy and 12-year-old girl, were injured. Maggie was a passenger on the front of the boat when authorities said the driver struck a tree that was hanging over the water.

July 13    Krista Danielle Elliott, 32, died Saturday, July 13, when she was a passenger in a boat that struck a tree overhanging the river. The boating accident happened around midnight near Wetumpka and authorities said she was the only passenger in the boat along with the operator, who was uninjured.

Alcohol and/or the absence of a worn PFD were the major contributors to the fatalities in the majority of the crashes. Driver inattention and/or incompetence also was a factor in several of the fatal accidents.

Cullman County, Alabama Sheriff boat searches for a person onboard a boat that was involved in an accident.

Driver (and adult) boating responsibilities

First and foremost, the driver, aka “the captain of the boat,”, is responsible for the safety of his passengers. Duties include ensuring the boat is seaworthy, properly equipped, maintaining a vigil for other boat traffic, safe handling of the vessel, following boating laws, never consume alcohol while driving, driving in water/weather conditions he can safely handle, ensuring the total weight in the boat does not exceed the boat’s posted limit, conduct of his passengers, and ensuring there is a correct, U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD for every passenger aboard and that they are worn. Special attention should be paid to children onboard making sure they are seated in a safe place with adult supervision and are wearing the correct type and size PFD.

Alabama Boating Laws and information can be found HERE.

Keep in mind, Accidents don’t announce themselves before they happen. Always wear an appropriate U.S. Coast Guard approved portable flotation device while on the water.

(EDITOR NOTE: Unfortunately, we can now add fatality number 26. On July 21 fifty-three-year-old Lorenzo Stallworth and two other individuals were riding a tube being pulled by a vessel when the tube struck a pier. Stallworth died as a result of his injuries.)

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