Guest Editorial by Wanda Kenton Smith
COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 and 2021 led consumers to seek safe, socially distanced family fun in a boat, and the rising tide of buyers lifted the U.S. recreational boating industry to historic sales levels. The resulting spike in first-time boat buyers and overall boating participation led to increased incidents, injuries and fatalities as per the latest U.S. Coast Guard data. Fortunately, these findings also revealed a key solution to this problem: boater education and training.
For the second consecutive year, Info-Link Technologies reported that first-time boat buyers of new and preowned boats exceeded the 415,000 watermark (830,000 for both years combined), surpassing levels not seen since 2007. First-time buyers accounted for 34% of all boat purchases in virtually all sectors, from paddle craft to jet skis, sport boats, sailboats, cruisers and yachts.
While boating remains one of the safest forms of outdoor recreation, the latest 2020 Recreational Boating Statistics published by the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety reported 5,265 recreational boating incidents, including 767 deaths, 3,191 injuries and more than $62 million in property damage. The fatality rate was 6.5 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels, a 25% increase from 2019. The number of incidents increased 26.3%, and the number of injuries increased 24.7% compared to 2019.
That same report revealed a compelling link between boating incidents and boating safety instruction: 77% of reported deaths occurred on boats where the operator hadn’t received boating safety instruction. Only 12% percent of deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had received a nationally approved boating safety education certificate.
So, what happened to boating safety education and training during the pandemic?
Initially, access was stymied by COVID-19 mandates and enforcements during the pandemic. Many leaders of boating safety education quickly pivoted to address the issue. As a result, a positive new trend has emerged to enhance the delivery of boater instruction and education. While live instruction has fully resumed, boaters now have full access to new hybrid or virtual educational instruction available via the internet.
As an example, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary’s recreational boating safety programs launched live, instructor-led virtual classes for the first time in the spring of 2020 in direct response to the pandemic. It now offers a mix of both live and virtual training options, which Director of Education David Fuller expects is now “the new norm” going forward.
The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) develops public policy for recreational boating safety, representing the recreational boating authorities of all 56 states and U.S. territories. It provides resources and training, including educational standards, while working through a national network involving thousands of educators, law enforcement officers and volunteers. In April 2020, NASBLA granted permission to the states to deliver education by virtual means, which has been extended through 2022. This is likely to become a permanent option as 31 states now offer virtual instruction alternatives.
It’s never been more critical – or easier – to access boater education and instruction than it is today. While a simple internet search will yield scores of boating safety and educational providers, the Water Sports Foundation’s National Boating Safety Resource Center offers a list of leading providers and available courses here: https://www.watersportsfoundation.com/media/boating-safety-education/
As we throttle forward into the busy summer of 2022, boating safety advocates strongly urge new boaters to utilize the many outstanding educational resources available to them. Investing in live or virtual boater education not only allows boaters to become more knowledgeable about their boat, its operations, rules of navigation, safety and etiquette, but also creates a greater sense of confidence at the helm. Boating safety and education contributes to a better overall boating experience, while making the waterways safer for all to enjoy.
Wanda Kenton Smith is boating safety advocate, 35 year-plus marine industry leader and president of Kenton Smith Marketing; national columnist for two leading b2b marine publications, and former editor of two national marine consumer magazines. She is director of communications for the Water Sports Foundation. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/wandakentonsmith/.