Boating deaths in Oregon remained above pre-pandemic averages in 2021, with 19 following a record 26 in 2020.
From 2010 to 2019, an average of 14.1 people died in boating accidents in Oregon per year.
"More people are out recreating on the water. We saw a lot of initial use, first-time boaters with lockdown," Oregon State Marine Board boating safety program manager Randy Henry said. "What we saw in 2020, and to a lesser degree this year, was people were social distancing and trying to figure out things to do, so a lot of inexperienced people were going out on the water and getting in trouble."
Under state law, boaters are required to report an incident or crash if there is a total loss of vessel, an injury beyond first aid or more than $2,000 in damage.
Henry estimated that only about 10% of non-fatal boating incidents are reported. In 2020, 91 such instances were reported.
Half the fatalities in 2021 were in non-motorized or small electric-powered boats, but others were in larger boats designed for open water.
While fatalities occurred in inland rivers, large and small lakes and reservoirs — including Henry Hagg Lake, where a Beaverton man drowned in August after apparently getting out of his kayak to swim — state data shows surf zones off the coast were particularly dangerous, as three incidents involving power boats in surf zones that each led to multiple fatalities in 2021.
In 2021, five of 19 boating fatalities were wearing life jackets.
"We worked really hard on our messaging for first-time boaters and paddle boaters to wear life jackets, and we saw that make a difference in May and June compared to last year," Henry said. "What was strange this year was the double fatalities in the ocean."
Henry said a statewide study from 2019 estimated 15% of fishermen and 16% of all paddle boaters wore life jackets.
"Not enough people wear life jackets. It's not part of the culture yet," Henry said. "It would be a great resolution for more boaters to simply wear their life jackets in 2022."
Henry said his son had a problem with an inflatable life jacket while duck hunting earlier this year. He encourages users to practice before they go out, so the life jacket can do its job — keeping its wearer afloat and visible in the water — rather than being a hindrance.
The state requires life jackets for those 12 and younger. Henry said five other states require life jackets for the cold season for various types of boats. Oregon could adopt similar regulations through the state Legislature.
"That's something we would have to do through the state (government)," Henry said. "It's certainly something we've talked about."
The state definition of a boat includes jet-skis and kayaks. According to U.S. Coast Guard data the number of stand-up paddle boards and kayaks on the water doubled from 2012 to 2018. Henry said the state has a permit program for any boat 10 feet or longer, but oversight of paddle craft remains a challenge.
"We do have a pretty good handle on the number of registered motor boats," Henry said. "But we know a lot of law enforcement are fairly overwhelmed by a large number of paddle craft and, in a lot of areas, people who are brand-new and don't know the basics."
Oregonians 12 and older can receive boater education cards, needed to operate vessels with more than 10 horsepower, upon completion of an online course. Roughly 160,000 cards are currently issued. The Marine Board issues about 10,000 per year.
The board also provides water training for police departments and manages the state hunting outfitter and fishing guide program.
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