By Agnes Bao
Capital News Service
Are Michigan waters getting less safe for boaters, with or without motors?
The number of recreational boating accidents in the state increased from 92 in 2013 to 125 in 2016, and deaths increased from 21 in 2012 to 38 in 2016, according to the latest report from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Accidents are happening on inland waters and on the Great Lakes. Last year, for example, on July 22, a 45-year-old woman was critically injured after a boat crash near Grand Haven.
On Aug. 6, a 23-year-old woman died from injuries caused by being thrown from a tube into another boat on Sand Lake in Clare County.
And on Sept. 17, a 23-year-old Holland man died in a personal watercraft accident on Lake Michigan.
One factor in the rising accident toll is the increasing popularity of paddle sports — participation is up about 7 percent annually, experts say.
Over the last five years, the number of powered vessels and paddle craft has grown steadily, said Dennis Nickels of Grand Haven, the chair of the state’s Waterways Commission.
There are more than 600,000 paddle sport vessels in the state, according to the Coast Guard.
“In three years, the number of paddle crafts in Michigan water will exceed the number of powered vessels,” Nickels said.
As a paddling enthusiast for over 40 years, Nickels said he’s “extremely excited about promoting the paddle sports in Michigan, but we’ve got to find a way to keep them safe.”
July and August are the heaviest boating months, said Jeff Pendergraff, Crawford County’s undersheriff in charge of the Marine Division.
To make sure of boaters’ safety, the Marine Division strengthens its workforce from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, Pendergraff said. “Some officers retired from other places, and they come and work here [for the Marine Division] in the summer to do marine enforcement.”
“Generally, there was an accident and alcohol was involved,” he said, adding that many people aren’t aware they cannot operate a boat well while drinking.
The general things that Crawford County’s Marine Division looks into include whether boaters wear life jackets, checking that they’re not drinking too much and making sure jet skis don’t get too close to swim areas, boats and anchors, Pendergraff said.
Chris Dekker, the chair of West Michigan Offshore, said that to improve boating safety, the Hudsonville-based powerboat club provides members with safety videos and a code of conduct to educate and regulate boaters’ behaviors.
The big factors that cause boating accidents are excess speed and alcohol, Dekker said. “Just staying on the basics and having a healthy fear of what can happen on the water is the key.”