Edward Finch, 74, of Wantagh, works on getting his boat...

Edward Finch, 74, of Wantagh, works on getting his boat up and running with his grandson, Morgan Fayden, 17, of Island Park, Police have began a push to begin further cracking down on Boatin While Intoxicated incidents. Credit: Johnny Milano

The number of fatal recreational boating accidents last year on New York waters was the lowest since 2006, drawing applause from safety advocates.

The positive trend, echoed nationally, is partly due to improved boat designs, mandatory safety classes and crackdowns on boating while intoxicated, experts and boaters say.

Last year, 18 boaters were killed in New York, or 3.9 deaths per 100,000 registered vessels, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

That's down from 27 fatalities in 2012, or 5.8 per 100,000. In 1980, there were 61 deaths and the rate was 19.09 per 100,000, state data show.

On Long Island, two boaters died last year, compared with nine in 2012, according to state statistics.

Local boaters are convinced the improving numbers reflect a greater law enforcement emphasis on safe boating.

"It's not about the boat. That's not the problem. It's the person behind the wheel," said Morgan Fayden, 17, of Island Park, as he helped his grandfather repair his superstorm Sandy-slammed powerboat in Freeport.

Fayden, who works at an Oceanside boatyard, said his friends have noticed more water patrols -- and that's a good thing.

Too many young people are drinking while out on the water, he said, destroying "the good things in boating."

Others believe the dip in fatal crashes has more to do with fewer boats on the water.

Fuel prices have soared, keeping many vessels docked. And some of the boats destroyed by Sandy in October 2012, while insured, haven't been replaced.

"People made a business decision to take the money from their boats that they lost and put it into their homes," said Rick Dillworth, 49, who owns and operates a Freeport marina.

Boat sales dipped

Another factor was the recession, which sliced into boat sales. Last year, there were 456,909 registered boats in New York, down from the 2002 record high of 531,579, according to state statistics.

Nationally, registrations last year dropped below 12 million, about a million fewer than in 2005.

New York last year ranked 33rd in recreational boating deaths, among the 57 states and territories the Coast Guard tracks.

Nationally, the 2013 death toll for boaters was 4.7 per 100,000 registered vessels, down from 5.4 in 2012, the Coast Guard data show. There were 560 U.S. deaths in 2013, compared with 703 in 2003.

"It's really an exciting number; we should stand up and cheer," said John C. Fetterman of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.

Further research needed

But figuring out what's driving the improvement will require more data and analysis, Fetterman said.

"We don't have a good handle on how many of these boats stayed tied to the dock, whether the price of fuel affected the amount of time they spent on the water," he said. "Are they staying closer to home; only boating in good weather?"

Experts prefer to focus on the long-term trend because annual figures can be skewed by a single catastrophic event or powerful storm.

"Every time you take a risk you're possibly going to change the statistic, or possibly not, depending on how lucky you are, depending on the weather, depending on the other boaters in the area," said Larry Weiss, New York legislative liaison with U.S. Power Squadrons, a safety advocacy group.

As often is the case, most of New York's 2013 fatal accidents were caused by operator inexperience, inattention or the lack of a proper lookout aboard the vessel, according to a state report.

The rest were caused by failing equipment, excessive speed, wakes, alcohol and bad weather, the report found.

Forty-four percent of New York's 2013 deaths involved motorboats, the state said. Kayaks and other paddlecraft were used in 28 percent of the fatal accidents; personal watercraft such as Jet Skis accounted for another 17 percent.

One Nassau boater died last year compared with four in 2012, according to the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Suffolk also lost one person in 2013. Five died in 2012 -- including the three children who drowned when the Kandi Won capsized on July 4.

Authorities determined the 34-foot cabin cruiser sank because it was overloaded with 17 adults and 10 children, a disaster that strengthened national campaigns for increasing boater education.

In May, New York began requiring all 18-year-olds to complete a boating safety course. The new law's supporters say that over time it will ensure people know how to operate boats safely.

Critics: More could be done Critics say the course is far too cursory and is being phased in too slowly, and that more crackdowns on intoxicated boaters are needed.

"All you need right now to drive a powerboat is the keys -- yet a boat is far more complicated than a car," Weiss said.

In addition to safety courses, some experts credit improved boat design for preventing deaths.

Those improvements range from the use of nonsparking engine components to "level flotation," which helps keep swamped boats from sinking, said Brian Kempf, director of marine services at the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

To truly boat safely, though, nothing beats a life vest, said Fetterman, a former longtime Maine marine safety officer.

"I never recovered a [deceased] victim who was wearing a life jacket," he said.

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