It started Jan. 16, the first of the news releases this year that tell a disturbing story, a sad story.
That prepared statement released that day by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries described a terrible double boating fatality in Caldwell Parish. Two 15-year-old boys died when the 18-foot aluminum boat driven by Travis McFarlain, 55, of Pine Prairie, smashed into a dock.
McFarlain, who later was charged for operating a vessel while intoxicated, and three teenage boys were thrown from the boat. Two of the teens died and the other was taken to a hospital in stable condition.
That was horrible enough. One boating death is too many.
Since then, however, five more people have died this year in boating accidents in the Sportsman’s Paradise. Each news release hit me in the gut. Those were easy to spot in the emails because they began “LDWF Agents Investigating …”
If those deaths don’t raise a red flag, y’all, I don’t know what will. We’ve ALL got to practice safe boating, ALL the time from the time we back the boat off the boat trailer to the time we put it back on.
LDWF officials are alarmed and responded with a prepared statement from the Enforcement Division titled “Boating Fatalaties Rising; LDWF Urges the Use of Life Jacket, Other Safety Measures” on March 10, less than two weeks after two more boating fatalities brought the death toll to seven. The deaths this year happened close to home in Vermilion Parish (Feb. 28) and St. Landry Parish (Jan. 18), Washington Parish (Feb.23), Avoyelles Parish (Jan. 29) and Caldwell Parish as well as in Lake Pontchartrain (March 6).
“We haven’t even gotten into the prime boating season in Louisiana yet and we are seeing fatalities climb at an alarming pace. We are urging boaters to please adhere to all safe boating laws and practices,” Col. Chad Hebert, the head of the LDWF Enforcement Division, said March 10.
He’s right, you know? We are nearing the spring and summer months when boating activities increase dramatically and already seven people have lost their life.
It isn’t just Louisiana. The 2020 boating season in Arkansas was marred by boating accidents, 75 to be exact, more than double the amount in 2019.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s annual Boating Accident Year-end Report on March 1 was sobering as it detailed 13 fatalities (10 in 2019) and a total of 35 injuries (up from nine the previous year) requiring treatment beyond first aid care. The wrecks also result in $297,274 in property damage.
AGFC Boating Law Administrator Capt. Stephanie Weatherington said in a prepared statement the increase likely was related to unprecedented increases in boating activities in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“With all of those additional boaters, we knew we would likely see an increase in accidents. When you add the fact that a lot of these added vessels were piloted by new boaters, it clearly had an impact. Operator inexperience was listed as the most common primary cause of accidents last year,” Weatherington said.
Still, she said, the percentage of reports boating accidents are low compared to the number of boats on Arkansas waters.
“We have more than 200,000 registered boats in Arkansas, but that doesn’t even come close to the actual number of boats out there statewide. Many boaters come from other states to enjoy Arkansas’ waters, and paddlecraft do not need to be registered unless you put a sail or some sort of electric- or gas-powered motor on them,” she said, noting only six boating accidents last year involved paddlecraft but five of the six results in fatalities.
“Paddlesports has been a growing trend, and we know manufacturers could not keep up with the demand for kayaks and canoes last year with everyone rediscovering their love for the outdoors. The accidents reported in this category were all tragic results of operators misjudging the conditions and their abilities to handle them.”
Weatherington and Hebert, Louisiana Enforcement Division chief, agreed that life jackets and boating safety education can improve those heart-breaking numbers.
“A life jacket is the life-saving equipment on a boat. Please, please use it. We want more people enjoying the water, but there are safety rules that are important to follow,” Hebert said, adding anyone 16 years old and younger must wear PFDs (personal flotation devices).
Louisiana’s Enforcement Division official also encouraged boaters to take the LDWF-approved safe boating course, which is mandatory for anyone born after Jan. 1, 1986, to operate a motorboat over 10-horsepower.
In Louisiana, U.S. Coast Guard statistics show the accidents where the level of operator education was known, 80 percent of boating fatalities happened on boats where the boat operator never received boating education instruction.
Most important is that each boat must have a sober driver. Hebert said operating or driving a vessel in Louisiana while intoxicated carries the same penalties as an impaired driver in a vehicle.
DON SHOOPMAN is outdoors editor of The Daily Iberian.