Unwavering Watch On The Water

With a busy Fourth of July weekend on the water, Texas Game Wardens focus on boating safety efforts across the state on the heels of tragic 2020

Coming off unprecedented numbers of tragedies on the water in 2020, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department law enforcement knew it would need to step up its efforts this summer. After all, boating accidents were at a 30-year all-time high in 2020, and the summer months traditionally have the highest numbers of injuries and fatalities statewide, with weekends seeing the peak figures.

With thousands of Texans and out-of-state visitors heading to Lone Star State lakes, rivers and coastal bays to celebrate the Independence Day weekend, Texas Game Wardens were out in force to ensure everyone stayed safe on the water.

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“Texas Game Wardens conducted safety checks on more than 12,220 vessels statewide between Friday and Sunday over the Fourth of July weekend,” said Cody Jones, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Assistant Commander for Marine Enforcement. “Our game wardens were present across Texas waterways doing their absolute best to help holiday waterway visitors have a responsible weekend, enabling many safe returns home and enjoyable holiday memories.”

In 2020, fatalities on Texas waterways increased 45 percent in 2020 from 2019, while fatal accidents on the water rose by 61 percent. Overall, accidents on the water were up 67 percent, and injuries were up by 64 percent. More than 70 percent of boating accidents that occurred in 2020 were on open motorboats or personal watercraft. 

This year alone — from January through April 2021 — Texas experienced a 40 percent increase in open water-oriented fatalities, including boating and swimming incidents, compared to the same period in 2020. Overall, in 2020, 55 boating fatalities and multiple boat accidents and injuries occurred on Texas waters.

During the Fourth of July weekend, game wardens were doing everything they could to prevent tragedies before they happened. In addition to issuing 1,474 citations and 1,797 warnings for various boating safety law violations, wardens arrested 42 individuals for Boating While Intoxicated (BWI) and filed eight other charges for Driving While Intoxicated (DWI). Additionally, another 33 people were arrested for various other charges.

Game wardens, the United States Coast Guard and thousands of law enforcement officers were on heightened alert looking for those violating boating under the influence laws. The effort was in conjunction with Operation Dry Water, a nationally-coordinated enforcement campaign focused on deterring boaters from boating under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

“Operating a boat under the influence of drugs or alcohol is a serious offense which will lead to your arrest and will include jail time, fines, and the loss of your driver’s license,” said Jones as game wardens made 193 criminal arrests for boating while intoxicated statewide in 2020. “It also increases the risk of accidents or fatalities on the waterways.

"Texas Game Wardens were be out in force to help ensure the public enjoys their time on the water responsibly. Most of the tragic deaths and serious injuries that occurred in Texas waters last year could have been prevented.”

It's important that operators of motorboats and personal watercraft including kayaks, paddle boards, and canoes receive proper education and training on immediate steps to follow if a crisis on the water emerges. Operator inattention, careless/reckless operation, operator inexperience, wake and alcohol use were among the top five accident causes or contributing factors to injuries or fatalities in 2020.

“Our primary goal is to make sure that everyone who leaves the dock gets back safely,” said Captain Jason Smith, United States Coast Guard Sector Commander, Houston-Galveston.  “Boat sober, file a float plan, and check the weather. Remember, a stowed life jacket is as useful as the seatbelt you didn’t put on when you got in your car. You need to wear it for it to save your life.”

According to Texas state law, a life jacket must be available for each occupant of a boat or paddle craft. Children under the age of 13 are required to wear one while the boat or paddle craft is underway or drifting. In 2020, Texas game wardens issued 641 citations for children not wearing a life jacket, up 11 percent from the previous year. Additionally, 1,821 citations were issued for insufficient life jackets onboard, up 26 percent from 2019.

“Summer has arrived for many and with it comes the need to remember to wear their life vest,” said Kimberly Sorensen, TPWD Boating Education manager. “Simple water safety precautions on Texas waterways include wearing a life jacket, learning how to swim, and closely supervising children. According to Texas state law, a life jacket must be available for each occupant of a boat or paddle craft. Children who are under the age of 13 are required to wear a life vest while on the boat or when the paddle craft is underway or drifting."

Accidents on the water happen fast. U.S. Coast Guard statistics show that drowning was the reported cause of death in 79 percent of recreational boating fatalities in 2019, and that 86 percent of those who drowned were not wearing a flotation device.

“Drowning is the highest reported cause of death in boating fatalities. Most victims are found not wearing a lifejacket. Simply stowing your life jacket on the boat is inadequate. Accidents on the water can happen quickly leaving insufficient time to put on a life jacket when most needed. For everyone’s safety, wear your life jacket and ensure others wear theirs at all times when on the water.”

Texas Game Wardens also conducted multiple search and rescues over the holiday weekend, responding to 18 reportable boating accidents at several Texas lakes and rivers, and engaging in rescues in which life jackets were not being worn. Game wardens also dealt with two boating fatalities and seven open water fatalities on Texas waterways over the Independence Day weekend.

“The dedicated efforts of the game wardens while working these tragic events is second to none – and is never the easiest part of the job,” Jones said. “We keep the families who have suffered in our thoughts and prayers.”

Boater education is key to helping reduce accidents and fatalities. Of the fatalities and accidents in 2020, more than 60 percent of boat operators had not completed the state-mandated boater safety course.

With fatalities on Texas waterways up 40 percent in the first quarter of 2021, Texas boaters are being urged to take boater education before heading to lakes and rivers as TPWD launched a “Rock Your Boat” campaign urging boater education to help reduce fatalities and injuries on Texas waterways.

“We want people to enjoy Texas’ waterways this summer and ensure they are prepared before they head out to the lakes and rivers,” Jones said. “Of fatalities and accidents in 2020, on average more than 60 percent of boat operators had not completed a mandated boater safety course.”

In order to operate a personal watercraft or a boat with a 15-horsepower rating or more, anyone born on or after Sept. 1, 1993 must complete a boater education course. Boaters can find a selection of online boater courses that can be taken anytime on TPWD’s boater education web page. In-person courses are available. Paddlers can also access a free paddling safety course online.

Five safety tips to “Rock Your Boat” on the water include: wearing a life jacket, avoiding alcohol, watching your kids and others around you, use the engine cut-off switch (ECOS), and ensuring all know how to swim.

Other important safety precautions include checking the weather before heading to the water, checking your equipment, ensuring sufficient backup and waterproof communication devices, and knowing the rules of the waterway before launching on the lake. The public is encouraged to check with managing authority of the water body they intend to visit for any local ordinances in place.

“TPWD wants to encourage everyone to take a boater education class," Sorensen said. "Boater education is key to helping reduce accidents and fatalities on the water. As we strive to enjoy this boating season, we ask you all to ‘Rock Your Boat.’

Photos courtesy of TEXAS PARKS & WILDLIFE DEPARTMENT

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