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May 3, 2018

It’s hard to think of a more popular American pastime than boating. In 2008, there were 12,692,892 boats registered in the United States. Sailboats, pontoons, jet skis, motorboats and rowboats all grace America’s lakes and waterways during holidays and bouts of favorable weather. But boating requires a knowledge of federal and state rules and regulations, because boating poses distinct risks to those who neglect the laws of the water. Boating accidents can happen when you least expect them, turning a fun holiday outing to a favorite lake or bay into a tragedy.

Indeed, serious boating accidents are more common than is usually thought. In 2008 alone, boating accidents resulted in 3,331 injuries and $54 million worth of property damage. 709 of those injuries resulted in death. According to the United States Coast Guard, the main causes of these boating accidents were excessive speed, machinery failure, lack of a proper outlook, operator inattention and general carelessness. Not surprisingly, alcohol plays a lead role in these boating accidents. Some 17 percent of boating accidents can be attributed to excessive alcohol consumption. The most common accidents, however, involve collisions with other vehicles, of which there were 1,237 in 2008.

Adults aren’t the only ones who lose their lives in boating accidents. In 2008, 11 children under the age of 13 perished while boating, and seven of those 11 children died from drowning.

Over two-thirds of boating accident victims drowned, and of those two-thirds, 90 percent were not wearing a life jacket, despite federal and state laws that require lifejackets be worn by anyone aboard watercraft.


Water vessels must follow the rules and regulations set out by the United States Coast Guard and their local state agencies.The Coast Guard defines “vessel” as any watercraft or artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on the water. This definition includes airboats, auxiliary sailboats, cabin motorboats, canoes, houseboats, inflatable boats, kayaks, open motorboats, personal watercraft, pontoon boats, rafts, rowboats, and sailboats. One exception to this definition is the unmodified inner tube,which the Coast Guard has not determined to be a “vessel.” (Accidents involving unmodified inner tubes are not included in Coast Guard reports.) All other vessels are required to report any boating incidents and accidents.

The federal government has strict requirements regarding the reporting of boating accidents. Federal law (33 CFR Part 173; Subpart C—Casualty and Accident Reporting) requires that victims of boating accidents file a report with the nearest state boating authority. But if the boating accident is more severe, the Code of Federal Regulations requires that it be reported more promptly. The Code of Federal Regulations requires a boating accident report to be filed within 48 hours of any of the following events:

  •  A fatality within 24 hours of the accident
  •  Sustaining an injury that requires medical treatment beyond first aid, i. e., treatment at a medical facility and by a medical professional other than any who happens to be at the scene of the accident
  •  Damage of more than $2000 to vessels, or damage that renders vessels a total loss
  •  A person’s disappearance from a vessel under circumstances that indicate death or injury

The reporting authority can be the state where the accident occurred, the state in which the vessel was numbered, or, if the vessel does not have a number, the state where the vehicle was principally used. If the operator is deceased or is unable to make the report, the owner of the vessel must make the report. For less severe boating accidents, a report must be made within ten days of an occurrence if the vessel or any property sustains damage. The Coast Guard lists the following incidents as requiring an official report:

  •  Grounding, capsizing, sinking, flooding
  •  Falls on, in or overboard a vessel
  •  Ejection from a vessel
  •  Fire or explosions that occur while underway
  •  Carbon monoxide exposure
  •  Electrocution due to stay current related to a vessel
  •  Casualties while swimming from a vessel that is not moored
  •  Casualties from natural phenomena such as shark attacks or rogue waves


To avoid major boating accidents, make sure your vessel is safe and meets current federal and state safety standards. A large number of boating accidents occur because owners of watercraft fail to meet certain safety regulations. According to the National Department of Vessel Safety Checks, most boats fail safety inspections because of infractions to state and federal law. To ensure a safe boating experience, make sure you:

  •  Display boating registration numbers
  •  Possess the necessary flotation devices
  •  Equip your watercraft with fire extinquishers Allow for adequate ventilation
  •  Install a proper marine sanitation device
  •  Outfit your vessel with navigation lights
  •  Ensure backfire flame control

By making sure that the vessel you operate or board is in compliance with the latest safety regulations, you can avoid potential boating accidents. Visit the website of the U.S. Coast Guard and the agency in charge of boating regulation in your state. Many times states will offer courses on boating safety for a small fee. In these courses you will learn the proper way to handle boating emergencies. Washington and Florida, for instance, require that potential operators of water vessels take a course on boating safety before operating their watercraft.


Unfortunately, only nine to ten percent of boating accidents are reported to federal and state authorities. If you are involved in a boating accident make sure to file the appropriate reports. Failure to do so can hurt your chances of filing a successful claim against negligent parties. Once you have filed a boating accident report, contact an attorney trained in boating accidents. The attorney can help you navigate the often tortuous legal process of filing a claim and securing the settlement that will help cover your medical expenses.

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