Recreational boating deaths surged last year in Alaska, but the long-term trend offers better news for safety on the water, according to figures released Tuesday by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The national summary of recreational accidents shows there were 5.5 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational boats, down from 5.9 deaths per 100,000 in 2016. The number of accidents fell by 3.9 percent, and the number of injuries fell by 9.4 percent, paralleling the decline in deaths.
Alaska bucked the trend, however: There were 20 recreational boating fatalities in Alaska last year, according to the Coast Guard’s data. That’s up from 19 in 2016 and seven in 2015. The number of recreational boating accidents declined, from 26 in 2016 to 15 in 2017.
The figures for 2017 match those released in April by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. The department uses different reporting criteria than the Coast Guard. According to the department, the 20 deaths are above the five-year average of 11.8 deaths per year, but that average is still lower than the 14.4 deaths per year that the state averaged between 2008 and 2012.
Mike Folkerts, boating safety expert with the U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska, said the state has had a handful of years where the number of fatalities has been high, but “the trend line is down, and it’s still down.”
According to the Coast Guard, 76 percent of American boating fatalities were from drownings, and of those drowning victims, 84.5 percent were not wearing a life jacket.
“Life jackets, life jackets and life jackets,” Folkerts said when asked what Alaskans need to know. He added that a means of signaling distress and avoiding alcohol on the water are also important.
Kelli Toth is the state’s Boating Safety Program manager. By phone, she said people don’t realize the shock caused by sudden immersion in cold water.
“Having that life jacket properly worn is your best defense against cold water,” she said.
When someone is dumped into cold water, they gasp, hyperventilate and thrash around.
“People need to try to reduce that urge to fight the water and thrash,” she said, and even strong swimmers can struggle with the shock.
“Wearing a life jacket is a sign of wisdom, not a sign of weakness,” she said.
Folkerts dispelled the common misconception that Alaska’s cold waters kill before drowning does.
“You’re not going to get hypothermia because you’re going to drown before you get hypothermia,” he said, explaining what happens to accident victims without life jackets. Arms and legs grow numb, and an unsupported swimmer can’t keep his or her head above water.
The state is continuing the “Pledge to Live” campaign that urges Alaskans to promise family and friends that they will live a life jacket when boating.
“We want our family members to come home,” she said.
Last year’s fatalities include two Juneau men: 50-year-old James Cole and 48-year-old Sheridan “Scott” Stringer, who disappeared after their skiff capsized, during a trip to a boat moored outside Aurora Harbor.
The two were the only Juneau fatalities, according to a map in the national report. There were three others in Southeast Alaska: one near Prince of Wales Island, and two near Ketchikan.
• Contact reporter James Brooks at email@example.com or 523-2258.