Dangers Lurk for Early Season Boaters
West Trenton, N.J. – It happens almost every year. The first spell of warm weather after a long winter brings intrepid
boaters back out onto the frigid waters. And sometimes those adventurous souls pay for their enthusiasm with their lives.
This year, March saw five fatal boating accidents in New Jersey.
- On Monday, March 15th, a 58-year-old man and his adult son were canoeing on the Delaware River in Hunterdon
County when the boat overturned in rough water. Neither man was wearing a life jacket, but the 24-year-old son was
able to make it to shore with assistance from a bystander on the riverbank. His father has not yet been found.
- Later that same day, two men were paddling in an aluminum rowboat when it capsized in the Tuckahoe River.
A 25-year-old man drowned when he could not swim in the cold water.
- On Friday, March 19th, a man working was working on his boat at his Egg Harbor Township marina when an explosion
blew him into the water and he never surfaced.
- On Saturday, March 27th, the captain of a commercial fishing boat was found in the water near his boat at the
Atlantic Cape Fisheries dock in Lower Township. He may have slipped and fell into the water, which led to his drowning.
- Later that morning, four people in a canoe overturned in the Manasquan River in Point Pleasant. Three were
able to swim to shore, but one drowned and was later located by troopers using side scan sonar. He was recovered
about 25 feet from shore.
Unfortunately, events like some of these are not unusual during this time of year. The off-season months are very dangerous
for boaters because of the increased speed at which hypothermia sets in when mishaps occur. Four times as many boating accidents
result in a fatality when the water temperature is 39 F or colder.
Early this month there was ice on the Delaware River with water temps in the 30s. Even after the recent warming temperatures,
the river is currently only in the mid-40s in the Trenton area. The Atlantic Ocean is only in the mid to upper 40s, and deeper
lakes in the state are about the same.
Capsizing and falls overboard are the most common types of fatal boating accidents, and boaters hitting that frigid water quickly
find their strength sapped and their movements slowed down. The human body cools down 25 times faster in cold water than in cold air.
Within minutes of being in the water, people can lose manual dexterity, muscle coordination and breath control. Even strong swimmers
can become drowning victims without the aid of a personal floatation device (PFD).
Statistics from 2008 show that of the 510 individuals who drowned in boating accidents, 459 were not wearing a PFD, otherwise
known as a life jacket. The best defense against drowning is to always wear a properly fitted, United States Coast Guard approved,
personal floatation device while boating or taking part in activities on and around the water. This is especially true when boating
in cold water.
There are many misconceptions about boating accidents. Chief among them is the thought that a vessel must be traveling at a
high rate of speed for a serious accident to occur. While speed is certainly a factor in many vessel accidents, a large number of
accidents occur on vessels that do not even have an engine. Nationwide in 2008, there were 157 reported deaths to operators and
passengers of canoes, kayaks, and row-boats. During the same year, there were 45 reported deaths to operators and passengers of
personal watercraft (jet-ski-type craft). It should be noted that in most venues (including New Jersey), personal watercraft operators
and passengers are required to wear PFDs.
Another common misconception is that in cold water, hypothermia will kill a person quickly, regardless of whether the person
is wearing a PFD. While hypothermia is a serious threat to life, most people would survive sudden immersion into cold water,
and ultimately be rescued, if they were wearing a properly fitted US Coast Guard approved PFD when the accident occurred.
Be Aware Of The "Involuntary Gasp Reflex"
When a person is suddenly immersed in cold water, they will experience an "Involuntary Gasp Reflex" during which the
person will immediately exhale, this will be followed immediately by an uncontrollable "gasping" for air. As this occurs the
person will generally panic, and, lacking a floatation aid, may begin to involuntarily "breath" water and drown. In many
cases, drowning occurs long before the effects of hypothermia are experienced. Again, the best defense is to wear a PFD.
While the PFD will not eliminate the gasp reflex, or the associated discomfort, the PFD will immediately float the person to
the surface, thus allowing the person to be rescued. Some PFDs will even turn an unconscious wearer face-up, allowing badly
injured or exhausted individuals to be rescued.
Boating Safety Initiatives
New Jersey is an active member-State in the Northern Association of Boating Administrators (NABA). All of our neighboring states,
including New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware are active participants. NABA is encouraging all northern states to enact legislation
that would require mandatory PFD wear during the cold-weather months. Many believe that if these proposals were enacted, the number
of boating fatalities would be reduced substantially.
Currently in New Jersey, individuals who are under 13 years of age, individuals who are waterskiing, and operators and passengers
aboard personal watercraft are required to wear a PFD, regardless of the season.
Boating Safety Tips
Always wear a life jacket. Life jackets are an essential component to safe boating. There are many styles of life jackets
available for a multitude of purposes including both extreme heat and cold.
Life Jackets Must Be:
- US Coast Guard approved
- In good and serviceable condition
- the appropriate size for the intended user.
- Wearable lifejackets must be readily accessible.
- You must be able to put them on in a reasonable amount of time in an emergency (vessel sinking, on fire, etc.).
- They should not be stowed in plastic bags, in locked or closed compartments or have other gear stowed on top of them.
- The best lifejacket is the one you will wear.
- Throwable devices must be immediately available for use
- Place your mobile phone in a waterproof plastic bag and keep it on your person.
- Leave a "Float Plan" with a close friend or relative. A blank float plan can be found on page 45 of the New Jersey
boating Safety manual. The boating safety manual is available on the Marine Services Bureau web-site at www.njsp.org/maritime.
- Check the weather forecast
- Speak with locals to learn about local boating hazards
- Bring charts and maps of the area
- Check all safety equipment including VHF radios, GPS devices, emergency locator beacons and flares
- Pack a first aid kit robust enough for significant injuries that could occur while boating/hunting/fishing.
- Pack food and water, even for a short trip.
- Make sure your boat’s drain plug is in place
Dress to protect against hypothermia
Water temperature below 90 degrees is considered cold enough to cause hypothermia. Body heat is lost 25 times faster in water than
in air of the same temperature. Dress in layers that will trap body heat even when wet. Wool and Polypropylene are good materials
for such conditions. Avoid cotton fabrics.
Follow all boating regulations
This includes having a wearable, Coast Guard-approved PFD for each person on board. Vessels that are 16’ in length or greater must
also carry at least one type IV (throwable) PFD. Check the capacity plate of the vessel and be certain not to overload or overpower
If you should find yourself in the water
Relax and stay with the boat. If your vessel has capsized, try to climb out of the water and on top of your capsized boat to await
rescue. Do not worry about trying to salvage gear. Anything that falls overboard is worthless compared to the value of your life.
Additional Maritime Information
For more information about New Jersey boating laws and regulations, please visit the New Jersey State Police, Marine Services
Bureau website at: www.njsp.org/maritime.
# # #