I probably don’t have to tell you about the deadly COVID-19 pandemic scourge that has swept across Texas, Oklahoma and beyond over the past several weeks.
But what you might not know is that according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, not all of the death and sorrow in recent weeks has come from the wretched coronavirus that has changed the lives of so many.
In fact, there’s actually been an uptick in boating and water-related accidents and fatalities, an unwelcome curve that came about as the whole world suddenly found themselves shut out of work and school.
“With the virtual teleworking and schooling that is taking place, a number of people have used extra free time and decided to hit the Texas waterways,” said Cody Jones, TPWD Assistant Commander for Marine Enforcement, in a news release. "During March and April of 2020, Texas has experienced a roughly 45 percent increase in open water-oriented fatalities including boating and swimming incidents over the same period in 2019.
“Summer has arrived early for many and with it comes the need for people to remember to wear their life vest.”
That’s particularly true as the year’s unofficial start to the 2020 summer boating season arrives this weekend with Memorial Day. While certain health safety guidelines remain, the reopening of the Texas and Oklahoma economies will almost certainly lead to residents seeking some watery relaxation over the next few days…at a socially acceptable distance, of course.
Hopefully, the recent curve of watery accidents and deaths will be flattened by adhering to the basic safety principles of safe boating and responsible recreation in and on the water.
That effort starts with wearing a Coast Guard approved PFD (personal flotation device). According to TPWD, Texas state law mandates that a life jacket must be available for each occupant of a boat or paddle craft. Children who are under the age of 13 are required to wear one while the boat or paddle craft is underway or drifting.
Despite the law, it’s one of the most violated rules in the Lone Star State. According to TPWD, last year Texas game wardens issued 583 citations for children not wearing a life jacket and 1,483 for insufficient life jackets on the vessel.
Another key component of water safety is the proper use of a safety ignition kill switch, something now required by the so-called Kali’s Law. That regulation requires the proper wearing of a kill switch attachment for boat operators on vessels under 26 feet in length when going greater than headway speed.
Another way to flatten the curve of deadly boating accidents and watery mishaps is to avoid alcohol use until the day is done and boaters are safely off the water. Operating a boat under the influence of drugs or alcohol is an offense that can lead to fines, the loss of a driver’s license and an increased risk of accidents or fatalities on the water.
Anyone born on or after Sept. 1, 1993 must complete a boater education course to operate a personal watercraft or a boat with a 15-horsepower rating or more. Boaters can find a selection of boating safety courses online, while paddlers can find similar courses for their chosen pathway to aquatic fun.
I’d add several other important safety considerations:
• Adhering to all local, state, and federal guidelines in place to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
• Given your exposed condition and low profile to the water, be especially careful when enjoying personal watercrafts, canoes, kayaks, and float tubes.
• Don’t overload your boat.
• Be sure to operate your vessel at a safe speed.
• Always having a passenger serve as a lookout in addition to the operator, watching out for low water areas, floating hazards, submerged objects, and changes in the weather.
For additional boating safety information, please visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Web site at www.tpwd.texas.gov or call the agency toll-free at 1-800-792-1112.
You can also gain boating and water safety information by visiting the U.S. Coast Guard’s online Boating Safety Resource Center at www.uscgboating.org.