2003 California Boating Safety Report

Section 2

Boating Accident Program

This section summarizes 2003 boating accident statistics.  The California Division of Boating and Waterways, law enforcement agencies, the United States Coast Guard, educational institutions, and California boaters use these statistics to help improve boating safety.

An outdoor billboard encourages boating educationA.  Limitations of the Analysis

Reportable Accidents

The statistics in this report reflect every reported boating accident in California in 2003.  Although the Department believes that all accidents involving fatalities were reported, many non-fatal accidents are never reported to the Department or law enforcement agencies due to noncompliance with, or ignorance of, the reporting law.  The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that only about 10% of accidents are actually reported to state programs nationwide.

An increase in the number of reported accidents from year to year might not necessarily reflect an increase in the actual number of accidents, but rather might result from improved reporting efforts or research from other sources (e.g., newsclippings).  To improve the accuracy of accident statistics, the Department has increased its efforts to obtain all accident reports by working closely with law enforcement agencies.

Accident Statistics

A total of 963 accidents were reported to the Department in 2003.  Some statistics in this report are measured as a percentage of these total accidents.  Often, there is more than one cause of an accident, more than one operator involved in an accident, or more than one vessel involved.  Therefore, the number of vessels, like the number of operators involved in accidents, usually exceeds the number of accidents.  A total of 1,186 operators were involved in boating accidents in 2003.  Many statistics presented in this report are measured as a percentage of the number of operators involved or the number of causes – rather than the 963 accidents – in order to provide more accurate comparisons.

Alcohol Use

Analysis of alcohol-related accidents can be complicated for the following reasons:

•  Delayed Accident Reporting – Often there is significant delay between the time of the accident and the reporting of the accident to law enforcement agencies.  Delays can happen for a variety of reasons, including emergency care needs and the desire to avoid legal consequences.  (Operators/passengers are reluctant to report themselves as being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.)  Unfortunately, these delays can result in the loss of accurate data due to alcohol burn-off.

•  Delayed Body Recovery – Sometimes, the bodies of boating accident victims are not recovered immediately.  A delay of more than two days in recovering a body can result in significantly altered blood alcohol levels due to the process of decomposition, a by-product of which is blood alcohol.  13% of boating fatalities in 2003 could not be tested for alcohol for the above reasons.

B.  2003 Accident Summary


The 963 accidents reported to the Department during 2003 involved 502 injuries, 61 fatalities, and over $3.8 million in property damage.  All totals exceed those in 2002 (911 accidents, 468 injuries, 53 fatalities, and $3.7 million in property damage).

Exhibit II-1 (below) presents boating accident statistics in California from 1980 through 2003.


Exhibit II-2 (following Exhibit II-1) presents 2003 boating accident statistics by county.

Exhibit II-1
1980—2003 California Boating Accident Statistics

Exhibit II-2
2003 California Boating Accidents by County

Type and Cause of Accidents

Exhibit II-3 (below) presents types and causes of accidents by vessel type.  Overall, the most common type of accident involved collision with another vessel (35%).  Open motorboats and personal watercraft were the most common types of vessels involved in accidents and were involved in 51% and 27% of accidents respectively.  The most common type of accident involving open motorboats was collision with another vessel (29%), followed by accidents involving skier mishaps (20%).  Most accidents involving PWC were collisions with other vessels (66%), followed by falls overboard (16%).

Exhibit II-3
Types and Causes of California Boating Accidents by Vessel Type

The most frequently stated causes of accidents overall were operator inattention (40%) operator inexperience (33%), and excessive speed (25%).  (A boating accident can have more than one attributable cause.)

The leading causes of accidents involving open motorboats were operator inattention and operator inexperience.  The leading causes of accidents involving PWC were operator inexperience and operator inattention.  Overall, these causes were consistent with previous years.

Time and Location

Accidents occurred mostly during the summer months (May through September), on weekends, and between 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.

Of the 963 boating accidents, 172 (18%) occurred during the three holiday periods of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day.  During these periods, 21% of all injuries and 10% of fatalities also occurred.

Of all accidents occurring on lakes throughout the state in 2003, 25% occurred during these holiday periods.

Exhibit II-4 (below) presents the accidents, injuries, and fatalities by location.  Overall, most accidents and injuries occurred on lakes, 51% and 65% respectively, and more occurred on northern lakes.  These percentages have increased from 46% and 51% in 2002.

Exhibit II-4
2003 California Boating Accidents by Location

Vessel Type and Length

In 2003, open motorboats accounted for approximately 49% of all vessels registered in California, and PWC accounted for 19%.  Open motorboats were involved in 51% of all accidents and PWC were involved in 27% of all accidents.  This indicates that PWC were involved in a disproportionately high number of accidents.  However, the number of PWC involved in accidents has decreased substantially in the last six years and has decreased 33% since 1997, when accidents involving these vessels were at an all-time high of 391.  Most vessels (70%) involved in accidents were less than 26 feet long.

Exhibit II-5 (below) presents registration and accident statistics for open motorboats, PWC, and other vessels during 2003.

Exhibit II-5
2003 California Registration and Accident Statistics for Open Motorboats, PWC, and Other Vessels

Operator Age

Overall, operators in the 31-40 age group were involved in accidents more often than those in any other age group, followed very closely by operators in the 21-30 and 41-50 age groups.  The 41-50 age group was involved most often in open motorboat accidents, followed by the 31-40 age group.  Most PWC accidents involved operators in the 11-20 age group, followed by the 21-30 age group.

Operator Owner Status

47% of all vessels involved in accidents were operated by the registered owner.  About 34% of vessels were operated by someone other than the registered owner (26% were borrowed and 9% were rented).

C.  Accidents Involving Personal Watercraft


A personal watercraft is a small vessel that uses an internal combustion engine powering a jet pump or propeller.  It is designed to carry from one to four persons, and to be operated by a person sitting, standing, or kneeling on the vessel rather than in the conventional manner of sitting or standing inside the vessel.

The use of a PWC is subject to all state, local, and federal regulations governing the operation of all powerboats of similar size.

As of December 31, 2003, there were 184,105 PWC registered in California, comprising 19% of registered vessels.  Exhibit II-6 (below) shows the total number of PWC registered in California from 1993 through 2003.

Exhibit II-6
1999–2003 California PWC Registrations


A total of 261 PWC-related accidents were reported in 2003, resulting in 200 injuries, 12 fatalities, and $483,500 in property damage.  The total number of reported accidents, injuries, and fatalities were higher than 2002 levels (253, 188, and 7, respectively), while the number of reported property damage decreased from $524,250.

Exhibit II-7 (below) presents an 11-year summary for PWC accidents, injuries, fatalities, and property damage.

Exhibit II-7
1993–2003 California PWC Accidents, Injuries, Fatalities, and Property Damage

Exhibit II-8 (below) presents 2003 reported PWC-related accidents by county.  Accounting for 19% of registered vessels, PWC were involved in 20% of all fatalities and were responsible for 13% of all property damage, but were involved in 27% of all accidents and 40% of all injuries.

Exhibit II-8
2003 California PWC-Related Accidents by County

Fatal accidents involving PWC increased from seven in 2002 to 12 in 2003, the highest level on record.  (See “PWC-Related Fatalities” in this section for further details.)

Despite the increase in fatalities, overall accidents involving PWC continue to remain significantly lower than the 1997 total of 391 accidents, a decrease of 33%.

A student learns how to properly operate a PWCThis decrease appears to be attributable mainly to two laws affecting PWC that took effect in January 1998.  The first law prohibited activities such as wake jumping within 100 feet of another vessel, spraying down other vessels, and playing “chicken.”  These activities now constitute endangerment of life, limb, and property.  The second law raised the minimum age to operate a vessel of over 15 HP alone from 12 to 16 years of age.  Since the vessel of choice of operators between 12 and 16 is the PWC, restricting this group’s ability to operate vessels has resulted in a decrease in PWC-related accidents.  This reduction in accidents is also discussed in “Accidents Involving Youths” in this section.

PWC accidents involving radical maneuvers such as wake jumping, donuts, and spraying other vessels fell from 88 in 1997 to 63 in 2002, a decrease of 28%. Accidents involving youth operators fell from 120 in 1997 to 83 in 2001, a decrease of 31%.

Type and Cause of Accidents

Overall Accidents

Most reported PWC accidents involved collisions with other vessels (66%).  16% of accidents involved falls overboard and 5% involved vessels grounding.

An examination of the 173 collisions involving PWC reveals that 110 (64%) involved a PWC colliding with a second PWC.  Of the collisions involving two PWC, 58 (53%) involved two operators who knew each other and were riding together.  Behaviors more likely to occur between operators who were riding together, were unsafe following distances and radical maneuvers.

The most common causes of all PWC accidents were operator inexperience (66%), operator inattention (63%), and excessive speed (57%).  (Some accidents have more than one attributable cause.)  All of these causes are operator-controllable factors.

Operator Age

PWC operators in the 11-20 age group were involved in more accidents than any other age group followed by the 21-30 age group.

Operator Owner Status

70% of PWC involved in accidents were operated by someone other than the registered owner (53% were borrowed and 17% were rented).

Boater Use Study

Several years ago, the Department noted the disproportionately high number of PWC-related accidents when compared to their registered numbers.  For example, in 1994, PWC constituted 13% of the vessel population, but were involved in 36% of the accidents.  However, if PWC spent more time underway than conventional boats, would the accident rate still be disproportionate?  To answer this concern, the Department funded a study that was conducted by California State University Sacramento to survey boat owners to determine the amount of time boats were under way.

The study, conducted in 1995 and 1996, found that, for every day on the water, PWC spent 5.2 hours underway, while conventional vessels only spent 3.6 hours under way.  However, when controlled for hours under way (that is, if conventional boats spent the same amount of time on the water as PWC), the study found that the number of accidents and injury-related accidents involving PWC still exceeded those involving conventional boats.

Since changes in law noted earlier in this chapter, the number of PWC-related accidents has decreased substantially in the last six years and the number of PWC accidents per hours under way has been approaching those of traditional vessels, and in 2003, was nearly equal to them.  The 2003 data revealed that:

•  When controlled for hours under way, there would have been one accident for every 698 traditional vessels operating on  California waterways, compared to one accident for every 705 PWC.

Representative Accidents

•  Two PWC operators were riding together, on a parallel course.  They were trying to converse and maneuvered closer to each other, but did so unsuccessfully and sideswiped each other.  A passenger aboard one vessel sustained a broken leg as a result.

•  A PWC operator approached a ski boat in a crossing situation and altered his course in order to cross behind that vessel.  He failed to see that the ski boat was towing a tube and struck it.  The tuber sustained a severe head injury and a broken elbow.

•  An operator was traveling too fast considering her proximity to the shoreline.  She attempted to avoid the wake of another vessel and quickly changed course, grounding the vessel.  She sustained a broken elbow and the vessel sustained major damage.

•  A PWC operator was traveling too fast in a 5 MPH zone. He shut off the engine as he approached shore and then lost steering capability and struck a beached vessel.  A person aboard the beached vessel sustained facial and internal injuries.

•  The PWC operator executed a donut at a high rate of speed, causing his passenger to lose his grip, fall overboard, and dislocate his shoulder.

Additional Safety Concerns

•  Many PWC operators do not realize that when they let off the throttle, they lose steering capability.  Numerous accidents have resulted from this lack of knowledge.

•  PWC sometimes present a danger to their riders because of the craft’s lack of visibility when it capsizes.  Riders who are attempting to remount their PWC are often not visible to other watercraft, and are liable to be struck by other vessels.

•  Although rare, lanyards sometimes present difficulties for operators.  In one case, the operator fell overboard and was injured, rendering him unable to swim back to the craft.  Since the lanyard was on his wrist, the passenger was unable to maneuver the craft to retrieve him.  In other cases, lanyards became detached and could not be reattached quickly enough to avoid grounding or colliding with another vessel.  These situations are rare, but noteworthy.

D.  Accidents Involving Water Skiing

In this report, the term “water skiing” refers to all activities involving a vessel towing a person on a towline.


In 2003, a total of 161 accidents involving water skiing activities were reported to the Department, resulting in 140 injuries and 6 fatalities.  The accidents accounted for 17% of all accidents, 28% of injuries, and 10% of fatalities.  Water skiing accidents increased 38% compared with 2002 totals.

In recent years, the sport of water skiing has evolved beyond traditional water skiing and now encompasses the towing of inner tubes, wakeboards, kneeboards, wake skates, and air chairs.  This year marked the fourth year that accidents involving wakeboards exceeded accidents involving traditional water skiing.  In 2003, accidents involving vessels towing inner tubes also exceeded traditional water skiing accidents.  Wakeboarding activities were involved in 45% of water skiing accidents, followed by inner tubing (31%) and traditional water skiing (24%).

Time and Location

96% of water skiing accidents occurred between May and September. 67% of water skiing-related accidents occurred in Northern California and 33% in Southern California.  The most popular bodies of water were lakes (86%), followed by the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (9%) and the Colorado River (2%).

Vessel Type and Length

Most water skiing accidents (90%) involved open motorboats between 16 and 25 feet in length, followed by PWC (4%) and cabin motorboats (4%).

Type and Cause of Accidents

Exhibit II-9 (below) provides a breakdown of the 2003 reported water skiing activities by situation.

Exhibit II-9
2003 California Water Skiing Accidents by Situation

Water skiing accidents in which the skier was responsible for the accident accounted for 52% of the accidents.  These accidents most often involved inexperienced skiers, who were injured while attempting to stand up or who attempted maneuvers beyond their experience level.  Some injuries were caused by skiing with an arm placed through the ski handle.

48% of accidents involved a variety of unsafe behaviors, both by operators towing skiers and also by other vessels operating in the vicinity of vessels towing skiers.  A number of accidents involved inappropriate handling of ski lines by operators and skiers.  Consistent with other years, the most common situations involved:

–  Vessels not keeping appropriate distances from drifting vessels involved in assisting fallen skiers, thereby running over ski lines.

–  Operators commencing operation of vessels while ski lines are still in the water, causing the lines to become entangled in the propellers.

–  Operating too close to the shoreline while towing tubes, not realizing that the tubers cannot maneuver the tubes and causing them to strike the shoreline.

–  Operators towing tubes in donuts to provide the tubers with more exciting rides, but instead, running over the ski lines and pulling the tubes into the propellers.

–  Operators failing to notice that other vessels are towing skiers, causing collisions with skiers.

–  Operators looking over their shoulders, watching skiers instead of relying on the observers, resulting in collisions with other vessels or the shoreline.

–  Operators failing to secure tubes, resulting in their blowing overboard, tangling people in lines or wakeboards so that they fall off racks and injure people.

Representative Accidents

•  A passenger was on the swim step attempting to free the ski line which had become tangled in the propeller.  The vessel was drifting toward the shoreline and the operator started the engine and attempted to maneuver away from the shore.  This caused the person on the swim step to become tangled in the line and then to be jerked overboard and pulled into the propeller.

•  The operator was towing a tube at a high rate of speed in an area that was not safe for water skiing activities. He made a sudden sharp turn, swinging the tube into a mooring buoy.  The tuber sustained a fractured pelvis and head injuries that rendered her unconscious.

•  The victim was learning to water ski and as she stood up, her hand became pinched between the ski and the handle, amputating her finger.

•  The operator had the vessel in neutral while a wake boarder climbed back aboard.  Waves rocked the vessel and the operator fell against the gear shift, causing the vessel to spring into gear and the wake boarder to be struck by the propeller.

•  The operator was towing a wake boarder and the vessel’s bow was raised.  The operator’s vision was blocked by people sitting in the bow.  His attention was also partially focused on the wakeboarder.  These factors caused him to strike a drifting vessel in his path, injuring three people aboard that vessel.

E.  Accidents Involving Youths


Throughout this report, “youths” refers to persons under 18 years of age.

From 1987 through 1997, California law required a person to be at least 12 years of age to operate a craft of more than 10 HP.  If an operator was under 12, a person 18 years of age or older had to be on board the vessel.

A sailing lessonIn 1998, the law changed; it now requires the operator of a craft of more than 15 HP to be at least 16 years of age.  Persons 12-15 may operate if a person of at least 18 years of age is attentively supervising aboard the vessel.

Note: Exceptions to this law include the operation of a sailboat that does not exceed 30 feet in length or a dinghy used directly between a moored boat and the shore, or between two moored boats.


During the 2003 boating season, youth operators were involved in 9% of all accidents, 14% of injuries, and 13% of fatalities.

Exhibit II-10 (below) presents an 11-year summary for youth operator accident statistics.

Exhibit II-10
1993–2003 California Youth Operator Accidents, Injuries, and Fatalities

The number of accidents involving youths had remained consistent for three years prior to the 1998 boating season.  However, since the previously mentioned operator age limit increase took effect in January 1998, there has been a substantial decrease in the number of accidents involving operators under 16 years of age.  The total number is 31% lower than the number reported in 1997.

Of the 99 youth operators involved in accidents, 26 (26%) were under the age of 16, and five were under the age of 12.  Of the operators younger than 16 years of age, 54% were operating illegally by either not having an adult on board, or, when the operator was younger than 12, operating the vessel under any circumstance.  The percentage of underage operators operating illegally has decreased from 84% in 2002.

Type and Cause of Accidents

Collisions (75%) were the primary type of accident involving youth operators, followed by falls overboard (6%) and persons struck by boats (6%).

The most common cause of accidents involving youth operators was operator inexperience (81%).  Operator inexperience was a factor in only 33% of accidents involving operators of all ages.  Operator inattention was the second most common cause, followed by excessive speed.

Vessel Type

The vast majority (89%) of youth operators involved in accidents were operating PWC.  An additional 8% were operating open motorboats.

Fault Assessment

Youth operators were involved in 62 collisions with other vessels.  Most of these collisions (74%) involved youth operators colliding with adult operators.  Youth operators were exclusively at fault in 39% of these collisions, compared to 30% for adult operators.  An additional 24% of accidents between youth and adult operators involved shared fault.

Representative Accidents

•  A 14-year-old operator was operating without an adult on board.  He retrieved a ball for a swimmer in the water and as he approached her, his vessel struck her in the head and neck, causing spinal, neck, and head trauma.  Both the operator and his father received citations.

•  Two 15-year-old PWC operators were riding together, one in front of the other.  Operator 1, who was in the lead, swerved to avoid an approaching vessel and Operator 2, who was following at an unsafe distance, could not avoid rear-ending the other boat.  Operator 1 sustained a head injury resulting in temporary amnesia.

•  A 17-year-old operator was overtaking a second vessel which sprayed water in his eyes, causing him to misjudge his distance from Vessel 2 and cause a collision.  Both occupants of Vessel 2 sustained multiple contusions.

•  A 16-year-old PWC operator decided to spray down friends on another PWC.  He misjudged his speed and distance and collided with the second vessel.  The passenger aboard Vessel 2 sustained internal injuries and both vessels sustained major damage.

•  A 16-year-old operator of an open motorboat, trying to assist some people whose canoe had capsized, approached at too great a speed and ran over one person with the propeller.

Additional Safety Concern

Very young children riding on PWC can present serious safety problems.  While riding in front of an operator, a child has easy access to the vessel controls and can easily manipulate them.  Such situations have resulted in accidents.  Seating a young child behind a PWC operator is unsafe as well, because he or she can easily fall overboard.

Additionally, a lanyard was left attached on a drifting, unoccupied PWC.  A small child playing in the area climbed aboard, pressed the start button and shot across the water, striking a swimmer, who later died of serious head injuries.

F.  Fatal Boating Accidents


In 2003, 61 fatalities occurred on California waterways.  This represents 6.3 fatalities per 100,000 registered vessels.  The number of fatalities increased from 53 in 2002 (5.9 per 100,000 registered vessels).

Type and Cause of Accidents

The most common type of fatal accident involved vessels capsizing (30%) and falls overboard (23%). Operator inattention (36%), operator inexperience (31%), hazardous weather/water conditions (25%) and excessive speed (18%), were the primary causes of fatalities.  61% of the victims drowned.  Of that group, 68% were not wearing a life jacket.

Time and Location

The largest number of fatalities occurred in June.  34% of fatalities occurred during the off-season of October through April.  54% of fatalities occurred during weekends.  46% of fatalities occurred on lakes, 26% occurred on oceans/bays, 20% on rivers throughout the State (excluding the Colorado River), 5% occurred in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region and 3% on the Colorado River.  67% of fatalities occurred in Northern California, compared with 33% in Southern California,  unlike the 2002 boating season in which fatalities were nearly evenly split between the two regions.

Vessel Type and Length

One-third (33%) of the vessels involved in fatal accidents were open motorboats, followed by PWC (26%), paddle craft (17%), and cabin motorboats (15%).  Even though PWC were involved in 27% of all accidents, they were not involved in as many fatalities, although they were involved in significantly more fatalities than previous years.  PWC operators are more likely to wear life jackets, which may explain the lower fatality rate.  Nearly all vessels involved in fatal accidents were less than 26 feet in length (89%).

Victim Activity

Exhibit II-11 (below) presents boating fatalities by type of activity and life jacket usage.

Exhibit II-11
2003 California Boating Fatalities by Type of Accident and Life Jacket Usage

PWC-Related Fatalities

Fatal accidents involving PWC increased from seven in 2002 to 12 in 2003, the highest on record.

50% of the accidents involved collisions with other vessels.  The majority of these accidents involved operators who were riding together and were not keeping a proper distance between vessels, and some were engaged in horseplay activities.  Collisions were followed by accidents involving falls overboard, (17%) and PWC operators striking persons in the water (17%).

33% of all PWC fatalities in 2003 involved horseplay activities, the majority of which resulted in collisions with the other PWC riding with them.

The largest number of operators involved in fatal PWC-related accidents were in the 11-20 age group. All occurred between May and September and 58% occurred on the weekends.

Fishing-Related Fatalities

Fishing-related fatalities accounted for 31% of boating fatalities in 2003.  Of these victims, 89% drowned and of that group, only one victim was wearing a life jacket. The majority (58%) of victims of fishing-related accidents were boating in Northern California.  The most common location of these accidents were northern lakes, followed by coastal areas and northern rivers.

The majority of the fishing-related fatalities occurred as a result of vessels capsizing (58%) or victims falling overboard (32%).

Carbon Monoxide-Related Fatalities

The inhalation of carbon monoxide fumes was a factor in four fatalities in 2003.  During the last several years, some victims have died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.  Dangerous behaviors include:

–  Leaning over the stern of the vessel while the engine is engaged

–  Teak surfing (body surfing by holding onto the swim step of a vessel that is under way and then letting go and surfing the vessel’s wake.)

–  Improper ventilation in an enclosed cabin

–  Swimming near the stern of a vessel whose engine is engaged.

Boating fatalities involving carbon monoxide may be much higher than reported.  In the past, some drowning accidents thought to be swimming-related may have involved carbon monoxide.  The Department is increasing educational efforts to educate boaters and accident investigators about carbon monoxide in the boating environment.

Helicopter rescue drillRepresentative Accidents

•  The occupants of a vessel were fishing and had been drinking.  A very drunken passenger stood up, causing the vessel to capsize.  Both he and a passenger who had not been drinking drowned as a result of his actions.

•  The operator of a ski boat was towing a person on a tube.  Instead of relying on the observer, the operator turned around to watch the skier, and struck a second vessel that was idling in his path, killing a passenger.

•  Two PWC operators were boating together.  One operator decided to spray down the second vessel and in doing so, turned so sharply that he spun around and came to a stop in the path of the second vessel.  Operator 2 was blinded by the wall of water caused by this maneuver and stuck the Vessel 1. Operator 1 sustained blunt force trauma to his chest and neck and died from his injuries.

•  A motorboat operator and two passengers were fishing along the coast.  The operator failed to notice that the vessel drifted into the surf line, causing the vessel to capsize. Only the child aboard the vessel was wearing one.  A Good Samaritan assisted the passengers to shore but the operator drowned.  Both survivors were treated for hypothermia and the surviving adult needed additional hospital treatment for injuries related to near-drowning.

•  A kayaker was negotiating a rapid and his kayak became wedged between two boulders.  He fell overboard and became trapped in the churning rapids.  He drowned despite his life jacket due to the force of the water.

G.  Alcohol Use and Fatal Boating Accidents


In 1987, state law made it illegal to operate a recreational vessel with a blood alcohol level of 0.10% or more.  In 1991, the legal limit was decreased to 0.08%.  Furthermore, a “boating under the influence” conviction now appears on Department of Motor Vehicles records and can be used to suspend or revoke a vehicle driver’s license.

Sober boating message directed at those who fishFor the purpose of this analysis, only fatal boating accidents were analyzed for alcohol-relatedness.  A person with a blood alcohol level of 0.035% or higher is assumed to be “under the influence.”  The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that when the concentration of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream reaches this level, noticeable changes in judgment and operational competency occur.

As was discussed previously in this section, testing was not conducted on all victims due to delayed accident reporting or delayed body recovery, which can alter blood alcohol levels.


Of the 61 fatalities, blood alcohol information was available in 53 of the cases.  Of these 53 victims, ten (19%) had blood alcohol levels equal to or greater than 0.035%.

Type and Cause of Accidents

The majority of alcohol-related boating fatalities were the result of vessels capsizing (40%) and falls overboard (30%).  Operator inattention (60%), operator inexperience (50%) improper loading (40%), and hazardous weather/water (30%) were the leading causes of accidents. (Some accidents had more than one cause.)

The majority (80%) of the victims drowned.  Of this group, 88% were not wearing life jackets.

Type of Vessel

A total of 11 vessels were involved in these accidents, ten of which were motorized.  The two most common types of vessels involved were open motorboats (45%) and PWC (19%). 91% of all vessels involved were less than 26 feet in length.

Time and Location

Of the ten alcohol-related fatalities, 90% occurred on weekends throughout the year and 80% occurred in Northern California.


Three alcohol-related fatalities took place during fishing trips, one took place during water skiing activities, and one during a paddling expedition.  The rest of the victims were engaged in general boating recreation.

Going overboard with alcohol - BAD CALL!Profile of Intoxicated Boaters

An examination of the ten alcohol-related fatalities reveals that five were operators, three were passengers, one was a water skier, and one a swimmer.  As in previous years, all of the passengers contributed to their deaths due to poor judgment related to alcohol consumption.  Furthermore, the actions of one intoxicated passenger resulted in the death of a sober passenger.

These findings relating to intoxicated passengers were consistent with findings from other years.  Passengers who are under the influence often put themselves in dangerous positions in the boating environment,  engaging in activities such as leaning over or sitting on gunwales or jumping from one vessel to another.  Additionally, intoxicated passengers often stand in or move about in vessels, causing them to fall overboard, or the vessel to capsize, placing all aboard in danger.  Persons also swim too close to propellers, causing danger to themselves.

These situations underscore the Department’s long-held view that a sober operator does not ensure passenger safety.  Intoxicated persons in or around vessels are exposed to dangers that would not affect the safety of intoxicated passengers in a vehicle.  The “designated driver” concept, which is popular in some boating safety literature, has its roots in automobile safety where the possibility of falling overboard and drowning (or in some years, swimming too close to the propeller) is not a factor.  Therefore, based upon the findings of these fatalities and others from other years, the Department recommends that neither operators nor passengers drink alcoholic beverages while boating.

Boating sober enhances your lifeAlcohol-Related Fatalities Involving Motorized Vessels

In January 1986, the Department submitted the Boating Safety Report to the California Legislature.  This report analyzed alcohol-related boating accidents between November 1, 1983 and October 31, 1985, and concluded that 59% of all fatalities involving motorized vessels were alcohol-related (where testing could be conducted).

The Department conducted a second alcohol-related boating accident study between January 1, 1993, and December 31, 1994.  This study concluded that 23% of all fatalities involving motorized vessels were alcohol related, a significant reduction from the 1986 study.

Table II-1 (below) shows the percentage of alcohol-related fatalities involving motorized vessels (where alcohol-related testing could be conducted) from 1993 to 2002.  In 2003, 43 of the 53 victims tested for alcohol-relatedness were killed in accidents involving motorized vessels.  Of that group, nine (21%) were alcohol-related.

Table II-1
1993–2003 California Alcohol-Related Fatalities Involving Motorized Vessels