Leadership, Safety Statistics, and the Boating Industry

The boating industry as a whole needs to step up the game when it comes to supporting and nurturing its customer base.  Specifically, we need to do more to promote training and education for both new and existing boaters.  Statistics back up what everyone knows in their gut; educated and proficient boaters are safer.  Not only are they safer, but they are more likely to be boaters for life.  As an industry, we should be doing everything we can to lead this effort and to encourage that education, because we want to keep them coming back to dealerships and brokerages.

At least 42 states have some sort of licensing and/or training requirements to boat on their waters.  Some have incorporated speed limits.  This is good or bad depending on your point of view.  There’s the opinion that additional regulation merely stifles the freedom we are looking for in the first place when we head out on the water.  On the other side, there is understandable pressure to “do something” about the increasing numbers of accidents and fatalities.  Given a vacuum it’s no surprise government bureaucrats will step in to “help” when policing ourselves doesn’t work.

The 2009 USCG accident report, which can be found in its entirety here, provides a sobering look at the dark side of recreational boating.  While the responsibility ultimately rests with the owner/operator, there is plenty the industry could do to improve these statistics.

Consider the following

  • In 2009, the Coast Guard counted 4730 accidents that involved 736 deaths, 3358 injuries and approximately $36 million dollars of damage to property as a result of recreational boating accidents.
  • The fatality rate was 5.8 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels. This rate represents a 3.6% increase from last year’s fatality rate of 5.6 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels.

And, very significantly

  • Only fourteen percent of deaths occurred on boats where the operator had received boating safety instruction.

The news is not all bad.  From 1996 – 1998 there were an average of about 8,000 reported accidents per year.  Over time, even though the total number of registered boats have gone up, the total number of reported accidents have trended down.  Disturbingly, however, the average number of fatalities is ticking up.

Another concerning trend worth mentioning is that, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), the percentage of adults in the US going boating is trending steadily down, from 36.5% in 1990 to 28.3% in 2009.  This isn’t good, and we have to collectively ask ourselves why this is happening and make efforts to reverse that trend.  For the glass half full perspective, there is a silver lining: the NMMA also reports that, in spite of economic hard times, that “nearly 89% of current boat owners took their watercraft out on the water in 2009, a four percentage point increase over the previous year.” (1) This indicates boaters are indeed a resilient and enthusiastic bunch.

There are statistics, and then there is common sense.  Training and education are keys to success in any endeavor.  Boating is no different.  For those of us who’ve been around and on the water for years, it’s an all too familiar scene.  A man or woman is trying to get their boat either away from, or alongside, a dock.  Because they don’t really know what they are doing, something _________ happens. (You fill in the blank.  I suggest “bad”, “expensive”, “embarrassing”, “unsafe”, or at best “funny”) These events cause expensive repairs, bruised egos, strained marital relations, personal injury, and more.  With a modicum of training all this can be avoided.  Without the training, the “fun” day on the water turns into a hassle.  Eventually we can hear this guy telling his friend that all too familiar phrase, “the two best days of boat ownership are…” It’s unlikely he is coming back to the showroom or brokerage.  What’s more, this sort of thing is not limited to the 20 foot family runabout crowd.  It’s just as common in the 40+-foot-serious-money boat world.  The only difference is the cost of repairs and the magnitude of the spectacle.

There is another disturbing dynamic at work here.  There is, among some boat dealers and brokers, a reluctance to tell owners new to boating that they need to spend time and effort (and money) getting educated and trained.  These dealers and brokers would rather just make the sale and move to the next unsuspecting client.

This is unfortunate, short sighted, and bad for our industry.  I’ll hasten to add that this is not pointed at all dealers and brokers.  There are those out there that offer at least a token amount of familiarization and training, but not enough.  As a whole, whether new or used, we sell boats like cars, expecting the customers to come back for a nicer, newer one later.  This loses sight of the fact that, unlike cars, nobody really needs a boat.  People want boats because they’ve discovered that it is tough to equal the pure enjoyment of a day on the water.  We owe it to these customers, especially the new ones, to give them a fighting chance of getting them the training and education they need, because those people represent our repeat business.  How do we do that?

First, when a customer new to boating buys a boat, that new owner should be provided complimentary familiarization and training, preferably on the water.  New boat dealers could offer more extensive training on either a pay-to-play basis or the modest cost could be worked into the base price of the boat.  The effort could be subcontracted out to USCG licensed captains who have an ability (and desire) to do this sort of hands on training.  Services offering captains for hire are out there.  However, leaving it purely up to the customer is insufficient.  That new owner doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and because of that will be unlikely to seek out this type of service.  Signing the contract and throwing the keys to the owner just doesn’t cut it.

If we don’t collectively raise our game in boater education and training, governments at the state the federal level will continue to step in to fill the leadership void.  We owe it to the customers and our industry to take a leadership role, because it is in the best interest of not only public safety but the industry’s profitability.

(1) NMMA 2009 Recreational Boating Statistical Abstract, p. iv








Broker with United Yacht Sales, retired Marine aviator, passionate boater, student of naval architecture, runner, triathlete and coffee geek

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