HOT SPRINGS — Arkansas waters saw a spike in the number of boating accidents last year compared to 2019, according to data compiled by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s annual Boating Accident Year-end Report.
Seventy-five boating accidents were reported from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2020, twice what was seen the previous year. These accidents resulted in $297,274 in property damage, 35 injuries requiring treatment beyond first-aid care and 13 fatalities. Injuries requiring medical attention also increased substantially from nine in 2019 to 35 in 2020.
Capt. Stephanie Weatherington, AGFC Boating Law Administrator, says the increases likely are the result of unprecedented increases in boating last year in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Tackle stores sold out of equipment and lakeside boat rental outfits, and outfitters on some of Arkansas’s streams saw amazing numbers interested in visiting lakes and rivers in The Natural State.
“With all of those additional boaters, we knew we would likely see an increase in accidents,” Weatherington said. “When you add the fact that a lot of these added vessels were piloted by new boaters, it clearly had an impact. Operator inexperience was listed as the most common primary cause of accidents last year.”
Fatalities caused from boating accidents also saw an increase last year, but to a much smaller degree. According to the report, 13 people lost their lives on Arkansas waters last year, compared to 10 in 2019. All 13 fatalities were caused by drowning, which is a common trend year-over-year in the report.
Weatherington does explain that overall, the percentage of reported accidents is still very low when compared to the number of boats on Arkansas waters.
“We have more than 200,000 registered boats in Arkansas, but that doesn’t even come close to the actual number of boats out there statewide,” Weatherington said. “Many boaters come from other states to enjoy Arkansas’s waters, and paddlecraft do not need to be registered unless you put a sail or some sort of electric- or gas-powered motor on them.”
Only six reported accidents involved paddlecraft, but five of the six resulted in fatalities.
“Paddlesports has been a growing trend, and we know manufacturers could not keep up with the demand for kayaks and canoes last year with everyone rediscovering their love for the outdoors,” Weatherington said. “The accidents reported in this category were all tragic results of operators misjudging the conditions and their abilities to handle them. There’s a big difference between paddling on the still water of a pond and trying to navigate a Class V rapid, and some of Arkansas’s streams can get very dangerous very quickly after a big rain. It’s always best to go with someone who is familiar with the water your first time there and consult with paddling groups and outfitters about safe river conditions.”
Weatherington said that even though it is not required to operate a paddlecraft, completing a boater education course can give newcomers the background to be more knowledgeable about the rules of the water so everyone can return from a day on the water safely.
“Boating education is mandatory for anyone born after 1985 who is operating a motorboat or sailboat in Arkansas,” Weatherington said. “But it’s just smart to take the time to take the course even if you’re paddling a canoe. Of 89 operators that were involved in the 75 accidents, only 28 had previously taken some sort of boater education course. We have a lot of room for improvement.”
One silver lining Weatherington has noticed is the increased use of life jackets among boaters who were involved in accidents.
“We still have work to do, but overall I think the message is getting out how important life jackets are to everyone, even people who are adept at swimming,” Weatherington said. “I know there’s been a conscious effort by many manufacturers and dealers to promote life jacket use, and with the influx of new boaters we’ve seen in paddlesports I think that message is growing.”
The complete report, as well as information on how to enroll in a Boater Education Course is available at www.agfc.com/boatered.