Alaska recreational boating deaths at all-time low in 2013

Jerzy Shedlock

Recreational boating fatalities and accidents in Alaska last year were the lowest since 2009, according to a new report from the U.S. Coast Guard. The new findings fit with a 15-year trend of declining deaths in Alaska's frigid waters.

There were a total of 10 boating deaths as the result of seven fatal accidents in 2013, down from a high of 22 deaths the previous year, according to the Coast Guard's annual Recreational Boating Statistics Report.

A total of 18 fatal and nonfatal accidents occurred in Alaska waters in 2013. The high within a five-year timeframe was 2010, a year that saw 24 accidents, eight of them fatal, according to the report.

The state's low numbers match the national data. The report says boating fatalities nationwide last year totaled 560 -- the lowest number on record.

Alaska's Office of Boating Safety, which collects its data differently than the Coast Guard, reported nine fatalities last year. That was the lowest number of recreational boating deaths in Alaska since records began in 1970, said the office's boating law administrator, Jeff Johnson.

From 1970 to 1999, the state averaged 30 such deaths every year, Johnson said. But since the creation of the state's boating safety program in 2000, there has been an average of 16 deaths annually, he said.

"We have historically had one of the worst boating fatality rates in the country," he said. Still, Johnson contends the state has made significant progress. "Boater behaviors are gradually changing."

More Alaska teens and adults wear life jackets compared to Lower 48 water recreationalists. Adults across the U.S. remain less likely to wear flotation devices; only 6 percent strap on vests. In Alaska, 13.5 percent of adults don life jackets. And 58.7 percent of teens age 13 to 17 in Alaska wear them versus 34 percent nationally.

From 2012 to 2013, deaths in boating-related accidents nationwide decreased 14 percent, from 651 to the all-time low of 560. Nonfatal accidents fell from 4,515 to 4,062, a 10 percent decrease, according to the report.

Alaska's general coastline extends more than 6,640 miles, a distance greater than all the other states' coastlines combined. The state is also marked by more than 12,000 rivers and millions of lakes larger than 5 acres. Many Alaskans spend their spare time on the sea and various waterways due to recreation, subsistence and sportfishing.

Nationally, where the cause of death was known, 77 percent of fatal accident victims drowned. Eighty-four percent of the drowning victims were not wearing life jackets. The report also notes alcohol as the lead contributing factor for the fatalities. Consumption of booze was listed as the leading factor in 17 percent of the deaths.

"Operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed and machinery failure ranked as the top five primary contributing factors in accidents," the Coast Guard reported.

Alaska's fatality rate remains higher than the national average. For 2013, the national rate of 4.7 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels reflected a 13 percent decrease from the previous year. In the northernmost state in 2013, the fatality rate came in at 10 deaths per 100,000 vessels.

Still, the rate dropped significantly from 2012, when 22 deaths among 50,142 registered boats translated to a fatality rate of 43.9 per 100,000 vessels. Also in 2013, for the first time ever, there were no boating fatalities in Alaska by mid-May, Johnson said.

The biggest risk in Alaska is the chilly water, Johnson said. If someone happens to take an unwanted plunge, "the consequences are dire."

Contrary to popular belief, hypothermia does not kill within three minutes. Reduced reflexes and hyperventilation occurs in the first few minutes under water. The second stage, called "cold incapacitation," begins to take effect within 15 minutes. Johnson said that leaves wayward mariners wearing lifejackets that amount of time to self-rescue, call for help or activate a signaling device.

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