One night last September, Dantwon Gray went fishing with a friend in a rowboat on Friess Lake in Richfield, 25 miles northwest of Milwaukee. When he got a bite, the 26-year-old Milwaukee man stood up, causing the rented boat to capsize.
Bystanders pulled his companion to safety, but Gray drowned. His body was recovered the next day. Gray, who didn’t know how to swim, wasn’t wearing a life jacket, and alcohol wasn’t a factor, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office concluded.
The tragedy that claimed Gray’s life was typical among the boating accidents that killed 20 people in Wisconsin in 2008, according to accident reports analyzed by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
Eight of the 20 people who died last year were in non-motorized boats, most of which capsized. Of the 17 who drowned, 15 weren’t wearing life jackets. And the percentage of boating accidents in which alcohol was involved declined sharply last year, accounting for just one in five accidents. Experts credit stricter law enforcement and a growing public awareness of the dangers of drunken boating.
The Center analyzed accidents reported to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Coast Guard. The Center found:
— Over the past 10 years, 193 people died in 1,311 boating accidents in Wisconsin. In the 110 accidents involving non-motorized boats, 56 people lost their lives.
— July is the most dangerous month of the year, with more than a third of all accidents occurring in that month during the past decade.
— In 2008, there were 110 reported boating accidents, well below the state’s annual average of 131 accidents over the past 10 years. That continued a fairly steady downward trend in accidents since 1999.
— The proportion of accidents involving alcohol dropped sharply last year to the lowest in at least a decade. In four of the past 10 years, alcohol was a factor in at least 85 percent of the boating accidents, compared to 21 percent last year.
— Accidents involving non-motorized boats continue to be a lethal contributor to annual boating fatalities. Only 16 of the 110 accidents last year involved non-motorized watercraft, but half of them resulted in fatalities. Since 1999, 51 percent of all reported non-motorized boating accidents resulted in deaths, compared to just 11 percent of accidents involving motorized watercraft, including jet skis.
A bill before the Legislature would attempt to add another layer of safety. It would require Wisconsin to join 48 other states in requiring that children under age 13 wear life jackets while boating.
In Wisconsin, children under 13 accounted for eight of the 193 boating deaths in the past 10 years, the Center found. Four of the five children who drowned during that time weren’t wearing life jackets. Two others died of trauma, and the cause of death for one child was listed as unknown.
None of the fatalities last year involved children under 13. Among those who died in 2008 was a 17-year-old and his father, neither of them wearing life jackets. They drowned after their motorboat was swamped by the cascade from a dam on the Wisconsin River in Marathon County. Nearly 90 percent of drowning victims in boating accidents statewide and nationally weren’t wearing life jackets.
Wisconsin law requires boat operators to have a life jacket for each person on board, but doesn’t mandate that they be used. Wisconsin and Virginia are the remaining two states that don’t require life jacket use for children.
Senate Bill 162, introduced in April by Sen. Jim Sullivan, D-Wauwatosa, would require life jacket use for children when traveling in a boat less than 26 feet long.
The son of a U.S. Coast Guard officer who patrolled Lake Michigan, Sullivan grew up learning about the importance of personal flotation devices.
“When you look at the harm that befalls children in boating accidents, most of it does come down to the wearing of a life preserver,” Sullivan said. “When you’re out there on the water on a boat, it’s not a matter of your judgment, it’s not a matter of how good a swimmer you are. Things go bad, and they go bad immediately.”
Unstable watercraft contribute to danger
Among the eight deaths that occurred in non-motorized boating accidents last year, six, including the Sept. 25 accident that claimed Gray’s life, involved canoes or rowboats that capsized. Two victims were presumed to have fallen overboard.
Dane County Sheriff’s Deputy Matthew Gueldner, who patrols Madison-area lakes and rivers, said boaters often underestimate the hazards of non-motorized boats.
“If you tip them over, they’re very difficult to right,” Gueldner said. “They’re very difficult to get back into. People on non-motorized boats need to be extra careful before they head out.”
Wisconsin has 613,000 registered motorized boats, fifth highest in the nation, and tens of thousands more canoes, kayaks, sailboats and rowboats that keep the state’s outdoor tourism industry afloat. The state is home to some 15,000 lakes, major rivers including the Mississippi and Wisconsin and hundreds of miles of Great Lakes shoreline on lakes Michigan and Superior.
In 2007, Wisconsin was the seventh safest state for boating in accidents per 100,000 registered boats, the Center found. Minnesota was the third safest, preceded by Vermont and Indiana. Nevada was the least safe, with Arizona and Alaska rounding out the bottom three. The analysis doesn’t account for the difference in time that boats were actually in use, as some waterways in colder states aren’t accessible for boating during winter months. No data were provided for California.
Despite a favorable safety record, Wisconsin boaters still face a variety of hazards. On June 28, a storm caused a 19-foot motorized bass boat to take on water on Madison’s Lake Mendota, dumping seven passengers into the the lake. Three were rescued while four others swam 100 yards to shore. Dane County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Elise Schaefer said alcohol did not appear to be a factor in the incident. Information on life jacket use wasn’t available, she said.
Life jackets save lives
Of the 20 people who died in Wisconsin in 2008, three boating deaths were attributed to trauma. The other 17 victims drowned. Fifteen of them weren’t wearing life jackets — a safety device costing around $30. The Center found that statewide and nationally, nearly 90 percent of boat-related drowning victims weren’t using a flotation device.
“If any of the other drowning victims had been wearing a life jacket, it is likely their deaths may have been prevented,” the Department of Natural Resources said in its 2008 Wisconsin Boating Program Report.
Steve Zowin, co-owner of Lake Delton Water Sports in Lake Delton, has been renting canoes and kayaks for more than 30 years. Although he’s not required by state law to do so, he instructs customers on how to boat safely and urges all of them to wear life jackets — advice that few act on, he said. Zowin recalls an accident one April more than 30 years ago in which a canoeist drowned in the cold water of the nearby Upper Dells. He believes a life jacket would have saved that man’s life.
“We make sure they have (life jackets) when they rent something,” Zowin said, but “most people do not wear them.”
Dantwon Gray wasn’t wearing a life jacket the night he rented a boat on Friess Lake. His father, Darin Gray, wants people to learn from his son’s tragedy by wearing life jackets when they go boating.
Dantwon didn’t know how to swim, just like more than half of the people who drowned while boating in Wisconsin during the past decade. In honor of his son, Darin Gray’s employer, Pro Health Care Medical Associates, sponsored a scholarship to fund swimming lessons at a Menomonee Falls YMCA.
Dantwon “was a very outgoing person,” said Darin Gray of his son. “He was real good with people. He loved to fish, so he went out the right way.”
Mandatory training still new to Wisconsin
A year ago, Wisconsin implemented a law requiring motorized boat operators born after Jan. 1, 1989 who are at least 16 years old to complete a boater safety training course. The law requires operators younger than 16 to either be safety certified or supervised by an adult. Officials say it’s still too early to know for sure whether the required training, offered both in classes and online, has been effective in saving lives.
Jack Von Rutenberg of Waunakee, a lifelong boater, is a strong believer in boater safety education. He took his first course as a child and has repeated it with his wife, son, stepson — and now his 11-year-old daughter, aptly named Marina. Last month, father and daughter joined about three dozen other students in a three-session boating course in Verona taught by Deputy Gueldner.
“When you’re out there, you have to know (what to do) right away,” said Von Rutenberg, who runs a restaurant on Lake Mendota.
He credits the state’s “phenomenally low” accident rate to classes like the one he took at the Verona Public Library. But such training is only required of operators of motorboats, not the lighter watercraft involved in many of Wisconsin’s boating deaths.
A top safety expert at the state Department of Natural Resources believes boater education, along with tighter enforcement of drunken-boating laws and growing public awareness of the dangers of drinking while driving a boat, have all contributed to safer boating in Wisconsin.
“As a society, we’ve become more aware of alcohol and the impacts,” said Todd Schaller, DNR’s director of recreational safety. “We do more enforcement with alcohol than we did 10 or 15 years ago. People are more conscious of it, and they’re more conscious of that enforcement.”
A searchable database of Wisconsin boating accidents since 1999 is available at www.WisconsinWatch.org.
This content is provided free to news media of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism credit tag line must accompany all uses of the story. Click here to access media downloads.