The Land of 10,000 Lakes ended 2015 with the highest number of boating fatalities in a decade, an unhappy by-product of an otherwise ideal spring, summer and fall.
The year closed out with 18 boating-related deaths — the most since 23 people died in 2005, according to preliminary numbers from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The new numbers reflect a busy boating year for Minnesota, which ranks No. 1 in the country for boat ownership per capita. Warm weather through the spring, summer and fall, along with cheap fuel prices, drew boaters out in droves, prompting new measures on places like popular Lake Minnetonka.
“We had pretty much the ideal season, weather-wise,” said Stan Linnell, DNR boating and water safety manager. “More people were out boating than some other years.”
Most of the deaths were the result of drownings. Of the 18 fatalities, 10 were men ages 20 to 60 years old who weren’t wearing life jackets. Despite the increase in boating traffic, the primary factor wasn’t collisions, but more often, the victim fell overboard or the boat capsized, the DNR said. Alcohol, excessive speed or weather conditions were frequently contributing factors.
October was the deadliest month, with five people killed while boating on state lakes.
Besides those incidents, the number of nonfatal boating accidents also went up in 2015 over previous years, at 76 accidents compared with 36 in 2014 and 65 in 2013. However, citations for boating while intoxicated (BWI) stayed relatively flat, with 80 BWIs compared to 76 BWIs in 2014 and 89 in 2013, the DNR said.
Lt. Jackie Glaser, who supervises conservation officers who patrol the west metro, including Prior Lake, Lake Minnetonka and the Mississippi River, said the numbers indicate that people are more prepared to designate a sober boat driver. But she said they also indicate that boaters need to take more precautions such as wearing life jackets.
“We never see enough people wearing life jackets,” added Lt. Adam Block, who supervises conservation officers who patrol the east metro including the St. Croix River. “It’s going to save a life.”
Busy boating season
After 2014 brought boating to a standstill with record rainfall in the Twin Cities, unprecedented flooding and no-wake restrictions, Minnesota’s estimated 2.3 million boaters rejoiced when 2015 ushered in the opposite conditions: an early ice-out and warm weather throughout the year.
On Lake Minnetonka, the Twin Cities’ largest lake, the conservation district that manages use of the lake stepped up enforcement this year. It paid for a dedicated patrol officer for the first time and a new satellite station on the 14,000-acre lake. Even with those preparations, the Fourth of July weekend found first responders inundated with 75 calls as thousands of boaters swarmed the lake.
“In my almost 15 years it’s probably the busiest summer on the water,” Glaser said. “I’ve never seen it so busy on Lake Minnetonka on the Fourth of July in my life. It was the most wild I’ve seen it.”
Boating traffic remained high throughout the longer boating season, she added, but the call volume on other weekends remained closer to average, with few accidents or major incidents. Authorities responded to a couple of serious medical calls, but only one boating-related death on the massive lake, a 7-year-old girl who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in October.
‘Not the direction we want’
While boating fatalities have reached a 10-year high, the long-term trend for boating fatalities is still down in Minnesota over past decades.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when the DNR first started keeping count, boating deaths neared 60 deaths a year some years, but fell steadily over the next few decades as education and enforcement ramped up. In 2002, there were 30 fatalities, before falling the next two years. The death toll went back up to 23 deaths in 2005 before declining again.
Now, the rise in fatalities is “not the direction we want to go,” Linnell said. “We’ve had a nice run of lower numbers that we’d like to get back to.”