Minnesota is on pace to record its deadliest year on lakes and rivers in more than a decade, and law enforcement officers are concerned as boaters head into summer’s peak that deaths are already at a 12-year high.
“All it takes is a couple nice weather days with strong winds … and we could pick up a couple more deaths,” said Lt. Adam Block of the state Department of Natural Resources.
Nine men have died in boating incidents so far in 2017, more at this point than in any year since 2005. Among those incidents are some of the earliest boating fatalities on record, following an unusually warm winter that led to early ice-outs, according to the DNR.
And seven of the nine deaths involved kayaks, canoes or boats under 16 feet long — an unusual pattern, Block said, since small boat registrations actually are dropping. It shows that the widespread belief that fatal incidents involve faster, bigger boats just isn’t true, he said.
With the July 4th weekend considered the biggest boating weekend of the year, law enforcement officers with the DNR and sheriffs’ offices are out in full force as many of the state’s estimated 2.3 million boaters descend on the water. On Lake Minnetonka, bolstered efforts will continue through Wednesday by the DNR and Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office’s Water Patrol, which responds to 107 lakes and rivers in all.
And last week, the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District, which regulates use of the lake, made it illegal starting later this month for a boat owner or operator to allow or provide for underage drinking — much like the social host ordinances passed by cities that hold homeowners liable.
On Sunday, officers will also ramp up enforcement of drunken boating laws during the annual nationwide campaign called “Operation Dry Water.”
In all of 2016, 17 people died in Minnesota in boating-related incidents. Of those, seven deaths had occurred by the end of June. The year before that, 2015, set a 10-year high mark for boating deaths with 18 fatalities; there were five deaths at this point.
Taming Lake Minnetonka
Nowhere in the Land of 10,000 Lakes is the boating scene — and drunken boating issues — as big as Lake Minnetonka, where as many as 9,000 boats could swarm the lake for the holiday.
In 2015, a rowdy July 4th weekend sent authorities on 75 emergency calls, from unconscious drunken boaters to a man sustaining a spinal injury from diving into shallow waters. Boaters packed the lake and officers took nonstop calls, while emergency crews angled for landings close to shore to dispatch patients to ambulances or helicopters.
That prompted new measures and intensified efforts during last year’s July 4th weekend. At least 40 officers patrolled the lake and ambulances were stationed for the first time on shore near a new $125,000 emergency dock in view of popular party spot Big Island.
Fire departments also used their boats as reinforcements, and Orono police officers were deployed to the shores of Big Island for the first time.
The message got to boaters.
“It was a lot tamer last year,” said Tom Jacob, who owns Bay to Bay Boat Club in Excelsior. “Sometimes on the Fourth it just brings out the wrong crowd. It’s really too bad. It gives the lake a bad reputation.”
Longtime lake users like Jacob say many of the visitors flocking to the water for July 4th aren’t familiar with the lake or its rules, so he welcomes the extra enforcement.
“It should be that way,” he said. “We want zero deaths.”
The 14,000-acre lake typically winds up with the highest number of boating while intoxicated (BWI) arrests in the state. Locally and nationally, alcohol is the No. 1 factor in boating fatalities and accidents, and it was a primary factor in more than half of Minnesota’s boating fatalities in 2016.
For all the boating traffic, however, Minnesota waterways are still relatively safe, and the number of deaths is way below the hundreds killed in traffic crashes.
The state, which ranks No. 1 nationwide for boat ownership per capita, has a lower-than-average fatality rate compared with other states, according to U.S. Coast Guard data.
The numbers have also dropped from the era when the DNR started keeping count in the 1960s, when it would record nearly 60 deaths a year. As education and enforcement have ramped up, the number of deaths has fallen.
On the opposite side of the metro area, authorities also are stepping up enforcement on the St. Croix River and other bodies of water, spreading the message to make sure the boat driver is sober and that everyone on board is wearing a life jacket.
Investigators are still determining whether alcohol was a factor in the state’s nine boater deaths this year. The DNR said all the victims were men and ranged in age from 27 to 68 years old, including a 65-year-old Blaine drowning victim found last month in Lake Minnetonka after a report of an abandoned sailboat. Only one of the nine victims was wearing a lifejacket, but he was in cold water while kayaking in February.
“Simply doing nothing else but putting on a life jacket, 10 lives would be saved a year,” Block said. “Our odds of surviving are dramatically increased, just like wearing a seat belt [in a car].”
Statewide, there have been at least 21 nonfatal boating accidents and nine drownings not involving boats so far this year, the DNR said.
Cooler weather forecast for this weekend, along with the holiday falling on a Tuesday, could put a damper on some boating traffic. But Jacob and marina owners on Lake Minnetonka are still expecting big business.
“We want safe boating all across the board,” he said. “That four-day stretch is going to be really busy.”