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A sharper focus on boating safety is making a difference, statistics show

Nassau County Marine Bureau Police Officer Joseph Stassi said on Wednesday, July 17 that education is the key to keeping boaters safe. (Credit: Newsday / Yeong-Ung Yang)

Taken all together, the numbers drove home just how dangerous Long Island’s waterways can be: in 24 hours last weekend, two dead, four hurt seriously enough to send them to the hospital, a capsizing that ended with all seven overboard and the operator charged with boating while intoxicated.

Alcohol, sun glare, speeding, no safety gear or even the wrong gear, simply not paying attention — they all can put a sad twist on a day on the water.

“When something goes bad on the water, it goes bad fast,” said Officer Joseph Stassi of the Nassau County Police Marine Bureau.

Still, those 24 hours last weekend don’t tell the full story of boating today, federal and state statistics show.

Strides made in watercraft regulations, safety equipment, policing and boat operator education are dramatically reducing serious crashes, fatalities and injuries — and the push is on to bring down the numbers even more.

Nationwide, for example, boating deaths totaled 658 in 2017, down a fifth from the 821 recorded two decades earlier, according to the latest data from the U.S. Coast Guard.

The reductions in accidents and injuries were even more stark. Accidents fell from 8,047 in 1997 to 4,291 in 2017, a drop of roughly 47 percent. And injuries were cut 42 percent, from 4,555 to 2,629.

New York reflects the trend, according to data compiled by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Fatalities have dropped 41 percent in the past 20 years, from 37 in 1997 to 22 in 2017. Accidents went from 322 to 181, a 44 percent decrease. Injuries plummeted a little shy of two-thirds, from 182 to 72.

A few other things about accidents and deaths: A majority happen on places like lakes, rivers, swamps and gravel pits — not on bays, inlets, sounds or the like, national statistics show. And most happen on nice days and involve paddlecraft or powerboats with engines of 75 horsepower or less.

More important are the significant contributing factors: booze, drugs, careless or reckless boating, inexperienced or inattentive operators and a lack of safety training.

Nationwide, alcohol played a role in a fifth of all fatal accidents in 2017, and eight out of 10 victims didn’t have on a personal flotation device and had never taken a safety course, the Coast Guard found.

Of New York’s 22 victims in 2017, one had taken safety instruction. That victim was under 21, according to the parks agency.

“You have to respect the water,” said Lt. Rocco Baudo, squad commander of the Suffolk County Police Marine Bureau station at Timber Point.

The real key to saving lives, though, is coupling enforcement with education, marine officers for both counties said.

Suffolk operates five 31-foot patrol boats, rigid hull inflatables, in marine patrol areas covering both the North and South shores. Officers also operate ATV quads and beach trucks on Fire Island.

Nassau is using nine boats right now to patrol the North Shore from Oyster Bay to the eastern portion of Little Neck Bay and on the South Shore from the Rockaways to the Amityville Cut.

But even enforcement and education can’t save lives when boat operators have the proper safety equipment on board but don’t use it.

Paddleboarders, kayakers and canoeists are required to have personal flotation devices aboard but are not required to wear them, said Officer Matthew Funaro, with Suffolk’s marine patrol.

“Now, what happens when you find yourself in the water without it?” Funaro said, pointing out that officers rescued a boater who was wearing his life vest upside down — clearly the man had managed to put on the vest only after he had gone into the water.

Stassi, the Nassau officer, wants to see mandatory boat education across the board.

Now, only powerboat operators born after May 1, 1996, have to take a safety course. Paddleboarders, canoers and kayakers don’t have to take any instruction.

A measure passed by the state lawmakers this year would change that, though. The bill still needs to be signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to become law.

The measure is called Brianna’s Law, named for 11-year-old Brianna Lieneck of Deer Park, who died in a 2005 boating accident. Her parents, Gina and Frank Lieneck, and her sister, Danyelle, were seriously injured.

The law, advocated by Gina Lieneck, would require any powerboat operator older than 10 to take a boating safety course, a requirement that figures to affect most of the operators of more than 400,000 powerboats registered in New York.

Both county executives, Nassau’s Laura Curran and Suffolk’s Steve Bellone, have voiced support for stricter regulation. Curran is set to make a push for boating education at a news conference Monday with marine officers and Lieneck.

“We are hopeful that [new legislation] will have a positive effect,” said Nassau Police spokesman Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun

Even though boating is relatively safe, it could be safer, said Ensign Collin Reichelt, a Coast Guard spokesman with Sector Long Island Sound.

For Reichelt, boaters just need to use common sense: Don’t drink and operate a boat. Wear a life jacket. Have situational awareness. Check the weather. Plan for emergencies. Have safety equipment and use it. And he can tick off lots of other should-dos.

“Knowing your limits, your capabilities; having the proper safety equipment, knowing your safety equipment,” he said. “Knowing your environment, that it’s ever-changing and complex — that’s what prevents tragedies.”

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