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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin Set Record 28 Boating-Related Fatalities in 2023

   Wisconsin set a tragic record in 2023 when 28 people died while enjoying the state’s abundant lakes and rivers by fishing, hunting, paddling, jet-skiing, waterskiing or motorboating.


   Most of those folks drowned. Only one died in a collision.


   The record toll marked the 12th year since 2005 that Wisconsin recorded 20 or more boating-related deaths. The previous one-year record was 25 fatalities in 2017 and 2021.


   During the past 20 years, in fact, Wisconsin has lost 367 people in boating-related recreation, according to records kept by the Department of Natural Resources.


   And it’s safe to say none of them stepped into their boat, kayak, canoe or paddleboard expecting to die. Maybe that’s why few of them were wearing a lifejacket. Specifically, 84% of the victims (307) weren’t wearing a lifejacket when going overboard, willingly or accidentally.


   Wisconsinites, however, do one thing well on our waterways: We protect our kids by making them wear lifejackets. Over the past two decades, only 14 of the state’s 367 (4%) boating-related deaths were kids 17 or younger.


   Oddly, nine of those 14 youngsters (64%) were girls, a striking number given that males make up 83% (306 of 367) of all boating-related fatalities since 2005. Another flukey fact in the DNR data is that no boy 17 or younger died on Wisconsin waters from April 2008 through July 2022.


   Even so, don’t expect praise from sheriff’s deputies or DNR conservation wardens if your kids wear lifejackets but you don’t. Mike Bartz, a retired DNR warden who transitioned into guiding summertime anglers and canoers in northeastern Minnesota, described the typical family canoe scene like this:


   Dad paddles in the stern and Mom paddles in the bow, with neither wearing a lifejacket. Meanwhile, their child or children sit in between them, each buckled safely into a properly sized lifejacket.  


   “That makes no sense, but you see it all the time,” Bartz said. “I always want to ask if they really want their children to watch them die if they capsize. I don’t know one guide up here who doesn’t wear a PFD (personal flotation device). Conditions can change too fast to risk it.”


   Mike Kolbeck, 60, of Birchwood, Wisconsin attests to the Northwoods’ sudden weather changes. He, too, has guided many canoe trips into the Quetico/Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Ontario. He even survived a potential disaster in July 2010 while wearing a lifejacket.


   Fifteen minutes into a nine-day photography trip with three other canoes, Kolbeck and a 72-year-old client felt the winds suddenly increase halfway across a bay as they approached two small islands. Kolbeck was in the stern, and his paddler in the bow had a weak shoulder. They tried turning into the waves to tuck into the lee shore of one island, but failed.


   Their canoe stayed broadside as they passed between the islands, which funneled the wind-driven waves into 3- to 4-foot rollers. The third big wave rolled their canoe. When the men tumbled out, the canoe righted itself with all their gear except one pack. Then the canoe was 10 feet away and separating fast.


   Kolbeck’s client bobbed safely in the waves, buoyed by a fully padded lifejacket. Kolbeck felt safe at first, but when he turned over to try backstroking to the island 40 yards away, waves drove him below the surface, blasting water into his mouth and nostrils.


   “It was bad,” Kolbeck said. “I panicked. I felt helpless in the waves. My lifejacket felt useless. It only had mesh fabric across the shoulders, with no flotation from mid-chest to mid-shoulder blades. I passed out, but two of our guys pulled me to their canoe and got me to shore. If they hadn’t seen us go in, I would have drowned.”


   Kolbeck and his wife bought fully padded lifejackets after he finished the trip and returned home. He’s now more cautious. “I’ll never go solo up there, like a lot of kayakers now do,” he said. “Too much can happen. I’d never before seen the wind pick up like that, and it lasted only about two minutes. We put ourselves into the wrong place at the wrong time.”


   Even though most boating-related deaths in Wisconsin involve open motorboats, 25% in recent years involved kayaks, canoes and paddleboards, and occasionally a rowboat, sailboat or pedal-boat. Self-propelled watercraft accounted for a record nine fatalities in 2023 and 2020, with one person dying on paddleboards in five of the past eight years.


   Age also plays a significant factor in Wisconsin’s watery fatalities. Of the 28 deaths last year, 12 (43%) involved men 55 or older, with most listed as “fell overboard.” As one accident synopsis reads: “Victim (no lifejacket) was deploying his bow-mount trolling motor when he fell overboard and drowned.”


   Alcohol and drugs are often involved in boating fatalities. Unfortunately, the DNR’s boating-fatality records inconsistently tracked drug/alcohol information until recently. For 2023, the DNR reported drugs or alcohol were involved in 12 of the 2023 (43%) fatalities. The agency’s online boating-fatality records, however, still list eight cases from 2022 as “pending” for drugs/alcohol, and 21 cases pending from 2021.


   In contrast, national data kept by the U.S. Coast Guard lists alcohol as the “leading known contributing factor” in 2023’s fatal boating accidents (https://uscgboating.org/library/accident-statistics/Recreational-Boating-Statistics-2023.pdf). The Coast Guard reported alcohol was involved in 97 of 564 (17%) boating-related fatalities nationwide last year, causing twice as many deaths as “operator inexperience,” the next-leading contributing factor. At 43%, Wisconsin’s alcohol-related rate in 2023 more than doubled the national rate.


   Coast Guard records also show that boaters generally stay off the water or proceed cautiously during high winds and bad weather. Of the nation’s 564 boating-related deaths in 2023, waters were rated “calm” or “choppy” (6-inch to 2-foot waves) during 439 (78%) of fatal accidents, and day/night visibility was rated “good” or “fair” during 492 (87%) of them.


   In other words, boaters grow careless or inattentive in nice weather. The Coast Guard report reads: “Operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed and machinery failures ranked as the top five primary contributing factors in accidents.”


   To learn more about boating safety in Wisconsin or to take an online boating class, click on https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/Boat.

Self-propelled watercraft like kayaks, canoes and paddleboards were involved in nine (25%) of Wisconsin’s 28 boating-related fatalities in 2023. — Patrick Durkin photo


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