By Kathleen Foody
Gannett Wisconsin Media
June 30, 2013

Tableau Public interactive graphic and map

Cool water, bright sun and a boat are the perfect combination for Wisconsin residents enjoying a summer day. But two things can make those days deadly: alcohol and forgetting a life vest.

More than 200 people have died in boating accidents in Wisconsin since 2002 and at least 171 of the victims weren’t wearing life jackets, according to law enforcement records.

Alcohol was involved in nearly 30 percent of all the fatal accidents between 2002 and 2012, either consumed by victims or other people involved in accidents, according to U.S. Coast Guard records.

As summer boating season kicks into high gear during the July Fourth weekend, law enforcement officials remind boaters to think about safety first. Wearing a life jacket and choosing a designated driver can prevent a tragedy.

“Wearing a life jacket is more important than a seat belt in a car,” Winnebago County Sheriff Lt. Steven Verwiel said. “There’s nothing holding you in on a boat. People get thrown into the water … and if you don’t have a (jacket) on and go unconscious, you drown.”

The number of people who died on Wisconsin waterways has remained stubbornly constant since 2002, averaging 17.5 people each year,according to the U.S. Coast Guard. In 2012, 23 people died in Wisconsin, which tied with Louisiana for fifth-highest in the country.

Wisconsin also had the fifth-highest number of registered boats in 2010, behind Florida, Minnesota, Michigan and California, according to the latest data available from the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and water patrol officers from other agencies are hoping mandatory safety classes for people born after Jan. 1, 1989, will create a new generation of boaters that is used to putting on a life vest before hitting the water. Seven years after that requirement was signed into law, state lawmakers have shown no signs of mandating life vests.

The latest attempt to expand state law, in 2011, would have required passengers age 12 and younger to wear life vests, but the bill didn’t reach the full Legislature.

Federal law requires passengers age 13 and younger to wear life vests on federal waters. The Coast Guard, which patrols Lake Michigan, Lake Winnebago, the bay of Green Bay and Lake Superior, can enforce that. State and local police can’t, even if they’d prefer to see Wisconsin standards match federal law.

Hot spots

Even on a rainy Saturday morning in mid-June, the boat launch at Bluegill Bay Park near Wausau was half full of empty trailers. The launch onto Lake Wausau is a popular starting point for recreational boaters and anglers.

Matt Nemitz, 33, of Wausau, has been boating and fishing in the area since he was a kid. He said sunny days make it easy to see why the Wisconsin River falls into the top 10 locations for boating accidents in Wisconsin.

“Probably 80 percent of the accidents you see or hear about are alcohol-related,” Nemitz said before heading out June 15. “I really don’t fish here on holidays or other busy weekends. I’d rather avoid the situation altogether and find a quieter spot.”

More people — 12 — died in Mississippi River boating accidents that have died on any other body of water in Wisconsin since 2002, according to U.S. Coast Guard records.

Seven people have died since 2002 in accidents on the four lakes included in the Lake Winnebago system, according to police records. Four more died in accidents on the Fox and Wolf Rivers feeding into the system, a total of at least 11 for the entire area.

Ten people have died on the bay of Green Bay, the second-highest for an individual body of water. The Wisconsin River has been the site of six deaths during the same period, ranking it fourth on the list of state waterways with boating fatalities.

In contrast, some of Wisconsin’s largest lakes, including the Petenwell Flowage in Adams, Juneau and Wood counties, did not crack the top 20 locations for accidents since 2002.

Police and other law enforcement officials who patrol Wisconsin’s waters say where you boat has less to do with accidents than how you boat. And when they talk about the people who drown each year after boating accidents, their frustration is clear.

Deaths as a result of car crashes are far more difficult to prevent, Marathon County Sheriff’s Lt. Randy Albert said. Albert said that boating fatalities could be avoided if boaters took more safety precautions before heading out on the water.

“With boating, that’s a vision that could be attained,” said Albert, who coordinates Marathon County’s boat safety program. “We could have zero boating fatalities in Wisconsin.”

‘Designed to sink’

Police say there are two factors preventing that: people who don’t wear life vests and those who drink while boating. Wisconsin isn’t the only state where that’s true, said Pam Dillon, education director for the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.

According to the Coast Guard, 459 people drowned while boating last year in the U.S. Of those, 379 people were not wearing life jackets at the time.

“A lot of people think that boating accidents are the result of high-speed collisions, and they’re not,” Dillon said. “So look at the numbers, fatalities (are) a person in a boat on a beautiful day, calm water, and they just fall overboard without a life jacket on.”

Other factors also contribute to boating accidents: inexperience with a boat or the waterway, speed or ignoring right-of-way rules. And falling into or entering the water without a life vest usually isn’t the sole cause of fatalities, but wearing one can keep you afloat until help arrives, Outagamie County Sheriff’s Sgt. Bob Bekx said.

If an accident occurs, it can take 30 minutes to an hour for police to be called and arrive at some locations, he said.

“I tell our safety classes: ‘You weren’t designed by God to float; you were designed to sink to the bottom,'” Bekx said.

A troop of Wausau-area Scouts got a similar message during a recent boating lesson on Lake Wausau. The teenagers clustered near the shoreline, all wearing life jackets, as they waited to be taken for a ride on a rainy Saturday morning. Carl Peterson, 44, of Schofield volunteered his boat to help the troop.

His son, Kyle Peterson, 15, offered one piece of advice to boaters: “Just wear a life jacket.”

“Simple accidents happen,” Carl Peterson said. “You can be walking through your boat and trip on a rope or an anchor in it and bump your head and fall overboard. And without a life preserver on, there’s not a chance — or a good chance — of surviving.”