Expect record number of first-time boaters on the water Memorial Day weekend in Southwest Florida

The boating industry reports a 35% increase in first-time boat ownership from last…

Expect record number of first-time boaters on the water Memorial Day weekend in Southwest Florida 1
Expect record number of first-time boaters on the water Memorial Day weekend in Southwest Florida 2

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Watch: Water Sports Foundation Boat Safety Sizzle Reel

According to 2019 U.S. Coast Guard figures, 70% of boating deaths occurred on boats where the operator had no safety instruction.

Water Sports Foundation, Wochit

More boaters than ever will be on the water Memorial Day weekend in Southwest Florida thanks to a spike in boat sales during the COVID-19 pandemic, officials report. 

As National Safe Boating Week comes to a close and the holiday weekend commences, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Water Sports Foundation seek to educate a record amount of first-time boat owners to keep waterways from Boca Grande to Marco Island safe.

“2020 was a different year in the course of the boating industry and sales,” Water Sports Foundation Executive Director Jim Emmons said. “With social distancing and summer trips being canceled because of the coronavirus people turned to boating in a big way.”

Those in the industry are considering it the best year for sales in nearly a quarter of a century.

The industry reports a 35% increase in first-time boat ownership from last year with 350,000 people nationally purchasing their first powerboat and another 65,000 buying their first personal watercraft, according to figures from Info-Link Technologies and the Coast Guard. 

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The trend, which is continuing into 2021, was shocking to industry insiders such as Gavan Hunt, the vice president of sales for Chris-Craft Boats based in Sarasota.

The pandemic’s shutdown of the economy didn’t breed optimism for boat sales, but soon enough inventory flew out of showrooms with manufacturers doing everything they could to keep up.

“It’s all about nautical distancing,” said Hunt, who entered the industry in 1981. “Truly it was a freedom people needed and wanted during the pandemic. It’s one of the few places you could be with family and not be worried.”

The National Marine Manufacturers Association reports $47 billion in sales of boats, marine products and related services nationally in 2020. It’s the highest total in 13 years.

“What we found in our research was that for a lot of people thinking about buying a boat for years that timeline was sped up due to the pandemic,” Emmons said. “People want to recreate in a safe way where they can follow social distancing.”

Hunt said the boom hasn’t just been for high-end boats as are produced by Chris-Craft but across the board. The rise in demand is almost impossible to keep up with, though.

“We’re hiring,” Hunt said. “We’re excited about the future. It looks great. But forecasts say inventory level will be depleted for the next two years. Customers should plan ahead as much as they can. Order your next boat now and you’ll have it by next season.”

Concerns over boating-related deaths

As far as boating safety goes, Emmons and the Coast Guard are concerned about Southwest Florida’s year-round boating season that will take really take off this weekend. 

From 2015 to 2019 there were 302 boating-related deaths in Florida, according to the Coast Guard Boat Accident Report Database. There were seven to 10 deaths per every 100,000 registered motorboat in the state during that span.

Most recently, an operator of a pontoon boat died when the craft hit a dock on a Cape Coral Lake on Wednesday evening. A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman said the report of the incident on Alhambra Lake came in shortly after 5:30 p.m., but released little additional information.

Ellen DeLeo, the Coast Guard Auxiliary Commander of Flotilla 96 Wiggins Pass, maintains high hopes for the holiday weekend despite the uptick in boaters on the water.

“We want everybody to come home safe and have a great time,” DeLeo said.

According to 2019 Coast Guard figures, 70% of boating deaths occurred on boats where the operator had no safety instruction.

Teaching boating safety proves challenging amid COVID pandemic

During the pandemic, boater education classes provided by the Coast Guard Auxiliary and others pivoted from in-person to virtual classrooms.

Certificates issued by the Water Sports Foundation dropped drastically over the first six months of 2020 but experienced a rebound over the last six months of the year, Emmons said. The trend continues in 2021.

Among the challenges the Coast Guard Auxiliary faced was having a limited selection of classes and the adjustment to technology for students and instructors, DeLeo said. In addition, many students opted to wait until the pandemic eased to take in-person classes.

“It’s tough to ask people to sit on Zoom for an hour, an hour and a half after they spent all day working on Zoom,” said DeLeo, who added there is a waitlist for the in-person Boat America course expected to resume next month and be offered monthly. The course allows students to obtain their Florida Boating Safety Education I.D. Card.

National Safe Boating Week wraps in SWFL

Flotilla 96 spent National Safe Boating Week making the rounds, performing safety checks at Lovers Key State Park, patrolling and observing waterways, setting up safety displays at Bass Pro Shop and teaching a class on local waters knowledge.

The class was combined with one educating passengers on the basics of operating a boat and calling for help if their boat’s captain becomes incapacitated.

Did you know? Boater safety law requires engine cutoff devices be worn starting April 1

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The Lee County Sheriff’s Office spent Tuesday performing boat safety checks on local waterways.

This weekend DeLeo hopes wearing a life jacket at all times is top of mind for boaters and passengers.

“The most important thing is to have people prepared before something happens. That’s why it’s so important to wear a life jacket,” DeLeo said. “Once something happens you don’t understand how hard it is to get a life jacket on.” 

She also emphasized the need to file a float plan that includes a description of the vessel, number of people on board, destination and the route being taken to the destination.

“If you’re overdue for arrival, you want someone looking for you right away,” DeLeo said.

Expect record number of first-time boaters on the water Memorial Day weekend in Southwest Florida 3

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Video: Top tips for boating safety

Keep your recreational boating safe and sane with these tips from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Wochit

12 top boating safety tips for the busy Memorial Day weekend

Education & essential equipment    

Be sure you are confident and comfortable at the helm. If you haven’t already done so, enroll in a boating class taught by qualified and certified boating safety instructors.

For a list of educational resources, check out the National Boating Safety Media Resource Center: Boating Safety Education – Water Sports Foundation.

Life jackets save lives

Drowning is the cause of death in 79% of fatal boating accidents where the cause of death was known; 86% of those drowning victims were not wearing life jackets.

 Make sure your boat is equipped with U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets for all passengers and they are sized to fit: Choosing the Right Life Jacket – Water Sports Foundation. Check your state law for mandates regarding life jacket usage and age requirements for children: NASBLA Life Jacket Requirements by State and Age.

Don’t drink and drive    

According to U.S. Coast Guard reports, alcohol use is the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents; where the primary cause was known, it was listed as the leading factor in 23% of deaths.

 For the safety of your friends and family, designate a “Sober Skipper.”

Engage the ECOS  

As of April 1, 2021, a federal law requires the use of an engine cut off switch (ECOS), an onboard safety device that is connected to the boat’s captain. Should the driver fall out of the boat, the ECOS will immediately stop the boat’s engine.

File a float plan

File a float plan with friends, family members and/or your marina that communicates the names of all aboard with contact information including cell phone numbers; your destination with a planned itinerary and stops along the route; and your estimated return time.

Be a weather watcher

Check the weather in advance and continually monitor using available mobile APPS. Storms, lightning, changing tides, currents, winds and other inclement weather conditions can endanger the safety of boaters.

 Should you be on a boat when mother nature unleashes her fury, find shelter as soon as possible.

Pre-departure communication

Make sure the captain has clearly communicated safety information and ground rules with all passengers. For example, this should include instructing everyone to remain seated at all times while the boat is underway, instruction regarding life jacket usage and throw cushion access, appointing observers to help watch for oncoming boat traffic or to monitor watersports activities.   

Comply with your boat’s capacity      

Every boat includes a designated maximum capacity rating. Consider not only the weight of passengers but also gear, coolers, water toys and other carry-ons.

Be careful, pay attention

The designated driver needs to be vigilant and to take responsibility for the safety of those on his vessel. Continually “sweep” the horizon and carefully watch and anticipate boating activity.

Choose destinations wisely


If you’re new to boating with limited experience, don’t choose the busiest boating day of the year to travel to the most populated hotspot for boaters in the area. The ability to safely navigate, drop and set anchors and lines in confined spaces is exacerbated in close quarters.

Follow posted speed limits and no wake zones

Be aware of established speed limits and no wake zones; respond accordingly.

Nighttime boating activity  

Holidays often feature fun events such as  firework shows and raft ups. While this can be a blast, there is additional danger associated with boating after sunset when visibility is restricted.

Slow down and use extra precautions. Make sure all your navigation and running lights are operational. Avoid drinking alcohol which can further impair your senses and visibility. Be extremely vigilant to watch for inexperienced boaters or those who may be operating under the influence. 

Expect record number of first-time boaters on the water Memorial Day weekend in Southwest Florida 4

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