Boating safety can be better
New catastrophes forever remind us how often our safety depends on ourselves. With Long Islanders back on the move, out on the water, and shedding pandemic precautions, lessons learned from the latest tragedies draw a special urgency.
On Monday, Suffolk County police arrested Jack Benjamin, 25, of Farmingville, and charged him with boating while intoxicated after the craft he operated struck a jetty on the Great South Bay in Sayville, reportedly at 1:23 a.m. Benjamin's childhood friend Nelson Matos, 25, was ejected from the boat and is missing. Others aboard were spared serious injury. Authorities said they were told Matos had not been wearing a life jacket.
On Saturday, Christopher Calma, 50, of Bethpage reportedly fell overboard reaching for a fishing pole around 9:30 a.m., during a fishing trip with his son near Northport Bay in Huntington. He, too, reportedly wore no life jacket. The search was later called off.
For the general public, all anyone in authority could do was offer standard words of condolence and warning you've heard again and again — and no doubt will hear again and again. Capt. Eva Van Camp, commander of Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound, urged people to take essential steps, including "always wearing a life jacket."
The last annual Recreational Boating report from New York State's parks department said that between 2005 and 2020, 4 out of 5 people killed by drowning in boat accidents hadn't been wearing a personal flotation device, or PFD.
It is true, if beside the immediate point, that boating fatalities are far fewer than they were decades ago. Reasons include safer boats, the rise of cellphone communications for emergencies, and broader awareness of the dangers of boating while impaired.
Nothing is a panacea. In June, Roberto Murillo and Roberto Guevarra set out fishing in a small motorized canoe. Their bodies were recovered from Smithtown Bay, and they had been wearing life jackets. But as the parks report sensibly concludes: "It is impossible to tell how many people have been saved by wearing a PFD but the potential consequences of not wearing one are clear."
Acting Suffolk Police Commissioner Stuart Cameron warned last month against the added hazard of inexperienced boaters in this summer of liberation. "I’m sure people that bought a boat last year and discovered the wonders of the waters … will be back out again this year," he said.
Use of flotation devices is basic. For perspective, let's recall how many people used to shun seat belts in cars, play hockey without a helmet, and smoke in the office. For that matter, few people back in the day used designated drivers, or called for-hire vehicles, when going home from parties, now common practice.
Enforcing safety rules is trickier on waterways than on roadways. But the goal here is the same. Surviving mishaps cannot be dismissed as fate.