Boaters sail in the Great South Bay in Sayville on...

Boaters sail in the Great South Bay in Sayville on July 5, 2021. Credit: Reece T. Williams

Boating boomed last year as pandemic-weary New Yorkers found freedom and fun on the water — although the increase did not drive fatalities higher, experts said.

Still, 18 New Yorkers died in boating accidents in 2021, down from 31 the year before, according to annual reports by the U.S. Coast Guard and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

The impact of skyrocketing fuel prices — small motorboats often run on the same gasoline as cars — likely will shorten excursions, but whether that reduces accidents is uncertain, experts said.

Since 2000, there has been a 90% reduction in marine engine emissions. 

And today's boat engines burn fuel 40% more efficiently than in 2000, the Washington, D.C.-based National Marine Manufacturers Association says.

"When fuel prices spike, people tend to vacation closer to home but they don’t stop vacationing,” said Paul Littman, New York State boating law administrator. Recreational boats comprise  0.5% of U.S. gasoline sales.

While safety experts say years of data are needed to confirm a trend, boat sales soared last year, with New York registrations rising to 439,508, a gain of 6,051, the state report said.

With just a few exceptions, registrations in New York had mainly declined from 2002 to 2020, when getting out on the water — just like going to parks — became one of the safest and most attractive ways to escape the boredom and stresses of possibly working and living at home.

Nationwide sales of boats — often acutely sensitive to downturns because they are not seen as necessities — have been recovering since the 2007 to 2009 Great Recession.

“The waterways became kind of an outlet, when a lot of recreational activities were closed down or suspended, so the waterways became more congested, boat sales increased dramatically,” said Kevin Williams, commanding officer of the Suffolk County police Marine Bureau, by telephone.

“The amount of inexperienced boaters that are out there that we’ve seen really definitely increased, and that really hasn’t abated yet.”

These novices might explain the rise in fatalities and accidents in 2020.

“In 2020, we saw a spike in the number of accidents,” said Littman. Now, he added, “The trendline is going back to a more normal trendline.”

Two years ago, there were 240 accidents, down from 251 in 2019, the state data shows. Accidents fell last year to 192.

In New York, the number of accidents has mainly declined, albeit in a seesaw pattern, since a high of 362 in 1988.

Modern boats are safer, experts say, and chart plotter devices and various apps, from navigation to weather, plus cellphones are helpful. However, all boaters should have a VHF radio, they said.

Experts also cite the state’s 2019 Brianna’s Law, which was inspired by the 2005 death of 11-year-old Brianna Lieneck in a boat crash on the Great South Bay.

Anyone born after 1988 must take an approved boating safety course. By 2025, all New York boaters must do so as the law’s five-year phase-in ends.

Safety experts say wearing life jackets should be as automatic as buckling a car's seat belt. Yet from 2005 to 2021, none of New York's drowning victims had one on, the state report said.

The other top risk factors are also well known: three out of four boaters who died were in crafts under 21 feet long, with open motorboats accounting for 44% of the fatalities, followed by kayaks, 15%, and pontoons, 10%, the Coast Guard said. Alcohol was the leading cause in 16% of deaths.

So far, any impact from spiraling fuel prices appears modest. Said Patrick Fay, of Manhasset Bay Marina: “People are definitely not filling up as much, but they are still going out.”

Unlike someone going to Fire Island for the day, however, Nick Sinclair, general manager of Patchogue’s Leeward Cove Marina, said: “It’s a much different call for boats going offshore, purchasing 500 gallons to go tuna fishing. I would imagine that’s a much bigger deal, more calculated and planned.”

For now at least, the higher end of the market appears to be holding up. At Sag Harbor Marina, which can handle 110-foot boats, “We have people calling every day to see if we have space for them,” said Elizabeth Grignon, an office assistant.

Increased fuel prices might have another effect. Walt Taylor, Boston-based U.S. Coast Guard District recreational boating specialist, said: “I think it may draw more human powered-craft: canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards.”

And that prospect, Littman said, raises “one of the greatest concerns I have.” 

“One of the increasing statistics over time has been the edging up of a number of fatalities in kayaks.”

One paddleboarder drowned last year in Nassau, its sole fatality, the state report said. In Suffolk, four boaters died — one in a kayak, one in a canoe, and two in open motorboats.

Taylor's conversations with individuals who rely on arm-power reveal they “really don’t consider themselves boaters,” he said. Although obliged to have a life jacket, a whistle, and a light, “a lot of them don’t realize there are a lot of requirements for their equipment.” 

Although demand for electric cars is intensifying in this era of high fuel prices, whether sales of electric boats will spike remains to be seen.

Said Littman: "It will hit a critical mass, but when is sort of hard to predict."

Correction: An earlier version of this story did not accurately describe how Brianna Lieneck died.

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