Boating enthusiasts in Iowa can breathe a sigh of relief that the worst time of the year for debacles on lakes and rivers has passed.
But those who still want to get out on the water for one last time over the long Labor Day weekend may want to brush up on safety tips and know how authorities have changed some patrol and enforcement policies.
An analysis by The Gazette of more than three years’ worth of boating crash data from all incidents the Iowa Department of Natural Resources responded to on the state’s waters shows:
• Between 2014 and 2016, about one-third of all boating deaths involved a kayak or canoe.
• But open motorboats account for most crashes involving injuries or property damage.
• And the number of crashes in which alcohol was deemed a factor is low — at least in reports, but almost certainly not in reality, officials said.
It’s unusual that water patrol officers witness a crash, said Jeff Swearngin, DNR law enforcement bureau chief.
“Somebody will come across an accident, or sometimes we’ll find a boat that was beached and somebody had driven up on the shore,” he said. “A lot of times, we’re not finding out about these until maybe the next day, and we rely on people to tell us if they were drinking. ... Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t truthful.”
The data reviewed — from March 2014 to June 18 — includes incidents that caused physical injuries or fatalities, damage to the vessel or both.
There are 235,000 boats registered with the state, Swearngin said. According to the data, there were:
• 32 incidents in 2014.
• 36 incidents in 2015.
• 37 incidents in 2016.
• 17 incidents as of June 18 this year.
There were between three and six boating-related deaths each year, according to the data. Kayak and canoe-related boating deaths account for about 33 percent of deaths from 2014 to 2016. All three individuals who died in a boating-related incidents this year before June 18 had been paddling on kayaks.
The majority of all crashes occurred in July each year. Multiple incidents occurred on the busiest bodies of water — the Mississippi River, Saylorville Lake, Clear Lake, Lake Okoboji, the Des Moines River and Coralville Lake.
But the number of crashes occurring on the Mississippi aren’t indicative of the total number of incidents on the river along Iowa’s border.
The Iowa DNR patrols districts of the Mississippi and works with the conservation officers of neighboring states, said Susan Stocker, boating law administrator and education coordinator for the DNR.
As a result, The Gazette’s analysis focused only on the state’s interior lakes and rivers under the Iowa DNR’s jurisdiction.
Role of alcohol
The data show, perhaps surprisingly, that the number of incidents categorized as not involving alcohol far outweigh those that do.
In 2014, there were 21 incidents classified as not involving alcohol and nine listing alcohol as a factor.
There were 29 incidents without alcohol and seven with alcohol in 2015, while 2016 included 25 incidents without alcohol and nine with alcohol.
For some incidents, reports do not say if alcohol was or wasn’t a factor.
But those statistics may not be indicative of how many actually go out on the water intoxicated, Swearngin said.
And the statistics may not reflect reality, as officers are forced to change the way they check for drunken boating.
At the end of June, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a portion of Iowa’s drunken boating law, which allowed officers to seek breath tests, was coercive.
The case comes after an Iowa DNR water patrol officer stopped Dale Dean Pettijohn Jr. on Saylorville Lake in Polk County in 2013, according to the court case. The officer suspected Pettijohn of being under the influence of alcohol, and two other officers believed Pettijohn failed a field sobriety test.
He was taken to a police department where an Iowa DNR officer told him of the consequences of refusing or failing a breath test. He gave a breath test and was found to be above the legal limit of .08 blood alcohol content.
He was convicted of operating a motorboat while under the influence. He appealed, saying the law allowing breath tests without a warrant violates his constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
Although Pettijohn was warned of a $500 fine if he refused a breath test, he wasn’t warned about the criminal penalties he could face if he failed, according to case documents. Although a few justices said requiring officers to get a warrant for boaters’ breath tests would make officers “race the clock as blood alcohol dissipates,” the court ruled that the law was coercive. The conviction was sent back to the district court.
Now, because of the ruling, water patrol officers are placing more emphasis on field sobriety tests, Swearngin said.
“We’ll do field sobriety testing on someone, and we’ll just ask, ‘Do you want to provide a breath test?’” he said. “There’s no implied consent, but a number are still taking the breath test.”
During the Fourth of July weekend, about half those asked offered to take the test, he said.
But there appears to be another trend: The Iowa DNR’s education about and enforcement of the drunken boating law has led to more “designated drivers” on the water, Stocker said.
“Boating while intoxicated is just as serious as operating a vehicle,” Stocker said. “More people are having designated drivers ... just like they would with a car. I would hope the trend continues.”
There’s more to staying safe on the water than abstaining from substance abuse.
It’s never too early or too late to take a boating education course, Stocker said. Iowa has three online courses and in-person classes with coursework from the U.S. Power Squadron and Coast Guard Auxiliary. However, no boating education course is required by Iowa law.
Each year, Stocker said, the Iowa DNR certifies 1,500 students between online classes and home study. Courses offer multiple tips on how to stay safe on the water, monitor weather, use navigation lights and safety equipment and understand Iowa’s boating laws.
“On a national level, it’s huge, the correlation between individuals who are being educated and aware of the area and taking a course for those being involved in an accident versus those who are not,” Stocker said, citing Coast Guard data.
Although boating education courses are not required for adults in Iowa, Stocker said possible reductions in insurance rates encourage some to go through the classes.
Some boat rental businesses, such as the Coralville Lake Marina that rents pontoons, ensure customers have a measure of safety training before going out.
“We take them down to the boat and give them an orientation, make sure they have life jackets. We work with them to say here’s how the throttle works, say, ‘Here’s your safety equipment, here’s where to go and not to go on the lake,’” said Ben Patience, sales representative at the marina. “If they have kids, we make sure they’re properly fitted for life jackets just to make sure they’re safe.”
The marina, which also sells boats, gives an orientation session on the water to any customer who buys from it.
However, safety training for kayakers and canoers may be lacking, Stocker said.
Kayaks and canoes
Data shows there was at least one canoe- or kayak-related death each summer since at least 2014. There were:
• Two canoe-related deaths in 2014.
• One kayak-related death in 2015.
• One canoe- and one kayak-related death in 2016.
• Three kayak-related deaths this year as of June 18.
That may be because the popularity of kayaks and canoes has skyrocketed, but safety training for those people using the vessels has not.
“They’re fairly inexpensive to get, and I think people sometimes overestimate their abilities,” Swearngin said. “I think people go out to their neighborhood sporting goods store and say ‘I’m going to be a kayaker now.’”
But Stocker said many don’t realize how easy it is to tip over — with serious consequences.
“The smaller the boat you get, the more unstable it is,” she said. “If you’re going to be involved in an accident with a canoe or kayak, it’s often an individual and the outcome is fatality. They end up in the water.”
When Ashley Buchanan, 26, of Cedar Rapids, rented a canoe for a few hours in late August at Lake Macbride in Solon, attendees gave her and her friend life jackets and showed them a flotation device in the canoe. But Buchanan said she wished they had explained more about how to use the device.
Still, Buchanan, who had been kayaking before, said she felt safe on the water, although she didn’t wear her life jacket the entire time.
“I was wearing my life jacket for most of the trip, but then I got frustrated and just decided to take this off, which could be how something bad happens,” she said. “I didn’t really prepare. I know how to swim, so that’s a plus. I just always hope I don’t have any accidents.”
Life jackets are key, Stocker said. Although it is required to have a life jacket on board a boat, only children under 13 are required to wear them in Iowa.
The Iowa DNR has increased efforts on educating Iowans about life jackets and putting signs about life jackets on Iowa waterways where boaters put into the water.
“We struggle with getting people to wear life jackets,” Stocker said. “Often the excuses are, ‘I’m a good swimmer, I’ve been boating all my life.’ No one expects to get in a car wreck, but the first thing we do is buckle up because we’re required to. It’s law. The life jacket is the only thing that’s going to give you a chance on the water.”