January 10, 2018

FLORIDA KEYS — While reported boating accidents dropped last year, fatalities and injuries crept up, according to figures from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Preliminary numbers for 2017 show 90 boating accidents accidents, with five fatalities and 53 injuries. The official numbers won’t be available until April, according to FWC Public Information Officer Robert Klepper.

In 2016, Monroe County had 105 reported accidents, with three fatalities and 52 injuries. 

Of Florida’s 67 counties, Monroe has ranked among the top 10 deadliest for almost a decade, often competing neck-and-neck for first with Miami-Dade, despite having the fewest registered vessels among those deadliest counties at 29,106.

The FWC divides the number of registered vessels by the number reportable accidents to calculate the accident rate. In 2016, the rate in Monroe was 1 in 227. 

The most recent boating death in the Florida Keys occurred in November when powerboat operator Joe Sgro flipped his vessel over during a poker run. Earlier in the year, a 13-year-old girl died after being struck by a boat propeller while boating with her family.

Information on the other three boat-related deaths was not available before press time.

Local FWC spokesman Bobby Dube said there’s a simple reason why Monroe County tends to rank high in boating accidents.

“Drinking and boating is a big issue here in the Keys,” he said. “About a quarter of all boating accidents involve alcohol, but down here in the Keys, it’s actually about two-thirds.”

The majority of accidents in the Keys are a result of collisions with a fixed object, he said, followed by collisions with a another vessel.

“Boating is great here 365 days a year, and it’s convenient to frequent an establishment that serves alcohol,” Dube said. “And, mix that with tourists who may not be familiar with the local waters and it’s a recipe for danger.

“Boaters need to have a designated driver every time.”

Dube said many of the accidents take place in Upper Keys waters, where visitors from the South Florida mainland congregate during weekends and holidays.

“The Coast Guard, the sheriff’s office and FWC are the only three agencies on the water. We try to curtail accidents before they happen. We don’t tolerate drinking and boating, we do safety equipment checks, we do the best we can,” Dube said.

Dube said that the lower number of reportable accidents in 2017 may be a consequence of Hurricane Irma.

“Since the hurricane, it’s been virtually a ghost town out on the water compared to years past,” he said.

FWC encourages boaters to purchase, register and have onboard their vessel an emergency locator beacon. It’s a device that can be used by any boater to ensure search and rescue personnel can find them quickly in the event of an emergency. FWC also recommends that boaters use float plans to let others know where they are going and when they will return.

Anyone born after Jan. 1, 1988, must have a Boating Safety Education ID Card to legally operate a boat in Florida. To obtain a card, visit myfwc.com/boating/safety-education/id.

Locally, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary offers a boaters safety course about every other month. The cost of the class is $45. There is limited availability. For more information or to register contact Peter Ihrig at 678-333-1288 or email him at pIhrigkeys@gmail.com.