May 21-27 Marks Safe Boating Week in America

Two men fishing from a boat.

June 1, 2011

It's Safe Boating Week in America, May 21-27. And as America celebrates its love affair with life on the water, it seems there's no place where observing safe boating is more important than in Michigan.

With almost 3,300 miles of Great Lakes coastline, more than 10,000 inland lakes and some 36,000 miles or rivers ad streams, it's a wonder everyone in Michigan doesn't own a boat. (If you go to the local boat ramp on a busy weekend, you'd swear everyone in Michigan does own a boat!)

Michigan ranks fourth among the states for registered boats, trailing only Florida, California and Minnesota is the number of boats.

As of May 2, a total of 918,871 watercraft were registered in Michigan. (Keep in mind that non-motorized canoes, kayaks and boats less than 16 feet do not have to be registered, so there are even more boats out there.)

That's a lot of boats. And the potential for a lot of boating accidents.

But boating is a surprisingly safe activity, all things considered. In 2010 there were 135 boating accidents reported in Michigan, resulting in 28 fatalities. And while everyone, especially the Department of Natural Resources, will tell you that's still too many accidents, boating fatalities are trending downward. In 1970, when there were only half as many boats (450,000) registered in Michigan, there were almost three times as many (79) fatalities.

"We are getting a lot better," said Sgt. Al Bavarkas, the marine safety specialist with the DNR's Law Enforcement Division.

The biggest cause of boating fatalities - more than 70 percent is drowning.

"More than 80 percent of the drownings in the United States are due to people not wearing their life jackets," Bavarskas said, "In most of the drowning accidents, people have life jackets on their boats, they're just not wearing them."

That's the first rule - wear your PFD (personal floatation device).

In Michigan, anyone 6 years of age or younger must wear a life jacket when on the open deck of any vessel. But wearing a PFD is recommended for everyone.

Bavarskas says the DNR is involved in a national safe boating campaign designed specifically to encourage people to wear PFDs.

It's important that people choose proper PFDs; that they fit properly, are appropriate for the wearer's weight, and are comfortable (so you'll wear them!). The recent trend - inflatable PFDs - goes a long way toward addressing those issues.

Inflatables, which are designed with simple harnesses, can be draped across the neck so the wearer barely feels its presence. But if a person falls overboard, he or she can quickly inflate it with a simple pull cord, usually attached to a CO2 cartridge.

So Bavarskas is participating in an event that kicks off Saturday, May 21, a program called Ready-Set-Inflate. The idea is promote everyone wearing PFDs at all times when on the water.

Besides wearing a PFD, boaters can reduce their chances of marine accidents by observing a few simple guidelines:

  • Make sure your boat is properly equipped and your equipment is in good working order: In addition to all legally required equipment, such as life jackets and fire extinguishers, always carry a first aid kit, nautical charts and an anchor. Make sure your navigation lights are working properly.

  • Avoid alcohol: Nearly 50 percent of all boating accidents involve alcohol. Studies show that passengers also are 10 times more likely to fall overboard when they have been consuming alcohol.

  • File a float plan: Always let a family member or friend on shore know the "who, what, when, and where" of your trip. Include phone numbers for the local police dispatch center or U.S. Coast Guard in the event you don't return when expected.

  • Maintain a sharp lookout: Always be alert for other boats, swimmers or skiers and objects in the water. This is especially true when operating in crowded waterways, and at night or during conditions of restricted visibility.

  • Carry a marine radio or cellphone: Be prepared to call for help in case you are involved in an accident, your boat becomes disabled, or you otherwise need assistance. Make sure a cell phone is fully charged, but be aware there often are gaps in cell phone coverage on the water.

  • Michigan conservation officers and Michigan county sheriffs encourage all persons operating boats in Michigan to enroll in a boating safety course.

Meanwhile, as personal watercraft become increasingly popular, boaters should know that some special rules apply:

  • A person who is 12 but less than 14 may operate a personal watercraft if he or she obtained a boating safety certificate before January 1, 1999.

  • Persons born after December 31, 1978 shall not operate a personal watercraft unless they obtain a boating safety certificate.

  • The operators of a personal watercraft must carry their boating safety certificate and display it upon the demand of a peace officer.

If you are interested in a boating safety class, you can go to, click on Education and Outreach, select "Hunter Education and Recreational Safety Classes", and you can search for a class in your area. Last year, more than 21,000 people in Michigan took boating safety classes.

Copyright 2015 State of Michigan