ST. PAUL — Minnesota this week confirmed the ninth boating fatality of 2021 in what is shaping up to be a deadly summer on the state's waters.
So far this year, more people have died in boating accidents in the state than did at the same point in each of the last 10 years, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. The trend is reminiscent of a statewide surge in road fatalities, which have also increased during the coronavirus pandemic.
Even under normal circumstances, early summer is a busy time on Minnesota waters. But the unusually hot weather of late and a populace eager to resume life as normal appears are making for a notable increase in activity, officials say.
"A lot of the social distancing and COVID restrictions have been lightened. People are ready to get out and get a little bit of relief from the heat that we've been having so naturally going to the water would make sense," Recreation Safety Outreach Coordinator Lisa Dugan said in an interview.
The DNR last year, according to Lisa Dugan, did observe an increase in the number of registered boats and first-timer registrants, although specific figures were not immediately available. The department also saw renewed interest in its online boating safety classes, she said.
Smaller craft and life-jacket avoidance
Many of the boating fatalities recorded in the last decade, according to Dugan, involved 16-footers and other small craft. The same is true of at least three of the nine deaths reported so far in 2021.
At least four of the nine people who died this year, meanwhile, were not wearing life jackets.
Under state law, each person on a boat is required to have at least one life jacket accessible to them, and children are required to wear one at all times. Yet hesitancy to wear them persists, according to Dugan, sometimes because they are viewed as being too bulky or too stifling to don in hot weather.
"That could be the one piece of safety equipment that could save so many people in the end," Dugan said.
The youngest, a 20-year-old man in St. Paul, died earlier this month after the canoe carrying him and two others capsized on Lake Gervais. The oldest, an 89-year-old man from Cochrane, Wis., died after falling overboard on the Weaver Marshes in May.
None were wearing life jackets, according to the DNR.
By the numbers
A total of 16 people in Minnesota died in boating accidents in 2020, according to the DNR — more than died the year before but fewer than in 2015 and 2016. In each of those two years, DNR statistics show, 18 people died in boating accidents.
But off-boat drownings also appear to be on the rise so far this year, the DNR said in a news release this week. At least six drowning deaths, several of which involved children, have occurred in 2021 at beaches, swimming pools and other places.
Such deaths make up the majority of water fatalities tracked by the DNR each year. Forty-nine were reported in 2020, 14 more than had been the year prior.
According to Dugan, no one place in Minnesota seems to be experiencing higher levels of watersport activity than any other.
"All signs kind of point to that the waterways across the state are busy," she said. "At any water assets, if you're waiting to launch, come with a little bit more patience, assuming that it's going to be busy."
DNR officials are advising boaters to wear life jackets at all times on the waters and avoid alcohol, which they say accounts for 40% of all boating fatalities. Children, they say, should be supervised "constantly" when on or near the water.
When swimming, the DNR warns, stick only to designated areas. If current and depth conditions aren't known, the DNR advises wading rather than jumping in.
"There are too many families who won’t be seeing their loved ones again,” Lt. Adam Block, boating law administrator for the DNR Enforcement Division said in a statement this week. "It’s up to everyone who heads for the water to double-down on safety and prevent what should be a fun experience from turning tragic."