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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin Sets Tragic Pace for 2020 Boating Deaths

Wisconsin recorded its 19th boating-related fatality of 2020 a full two weeks before Labor Day weekend, nearly tripling its death toll from a year ago at the same time, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

Those deaths nearly ensure Wisconsin will record over 20 boating-related fatalities in one year for the ninth time since 2005. The state’s single-year record was 2017 with 25 fatalities, of which 22 occurred before September. DNR data show the state averages three boating-related deaths annually after August.

Wisconsin recorded only seven boating-related fatalities before September a year ago. It ended 2019 with nine deaths when two men drowned after falling overboard, one Sept. 21 and the other Oct. 4.

Darren Kuhn, a DNR recreation warden in Green Bay, said the agency documented 104 boating accidents through Aug. 26, a 22% jump from 82 reported accidents in all of 2019. Kuhn attributes the increase to two factors: A hotter and drier summer than a year ago, and more outdoor recreation spurred by COVID-19.

“Based on our patrols, we’re seeing far more outdoor activity this year, whether it’s boating, kayaking, ATV riding, or paddleboarding,” Kuhn said. “In talking to local dealers about sales of boats, bicycles or four-wheelers, they have a hard time keeping up with demand. People are crowding our trails and waterways, sometimes even on weekdays.”

As usual, 16 of this year’s 19 boating-related fatalities were verified as drownings. Two died of injuries in accidents involving jet-skis. Both victims were wearing lifejackets, but at least 15 of the drowning victims (88%) were not wearing one. In fact, of 288 boating-related deaths since 2005 in Wisconsin, 236 victims (82%) were not wearing lifejackets.

“That’s so tragic,” Kuhn said. “Almost all these deaths are preventable. You hear excuses, like ‘I’m a good swimmer’ or ‘Lifejackets are so uncomfortable,’ but I don’t buy it. It’s hard to swim when you fall into cold water fully clothed. The shock alone can make you fill your lungs with a gasp of cold water. And today’s inflatable lifejackets fit so well you forget you’re wearing one.”

Another predictable fact in this year’s boat-based fatalities: Of the 19 deaths, 18 (95%) were males 18 or older. Granted, men spend more time on the water than do women, but if an accident report states “victim jumped from moving boat,” it’s usually a male. Further, there’s at least a 22% chance that alcohol was involved.

Even though women often paddle kayaks, and kayaks accounted for five of the eight deaths involving self-propelled watercraft this year, the lone female death was a 15-year-old girl who died July 3 on Lake DuBay in Portage County after falling off the back of a jet-ski.

Wisconsin, however, does a good job protecting children on the water. Of the state’s 256 boating-related deaths from 2007 through 2020, only 10 (2.6%) involved kids 17 and younger.

Of those deaths, however, 70% were girls. Two boys died in separate boating accidents in 2007, but the last boy lost to a boating accident was a 17-year-old youth who drowned in April 2008 on the Wisconsin River after the boat he was in capsized below a Marathon County dam.

Since then, seven girls have died in boating accidents. In addition to this summer’s July 3 jet-skiing death, a 14-year-old girl drowned May 25, 2019, despite wearing a lifejacket after several canoes capsized in the Yahara River.

Another tragedy claimed 3-, 5- and 9-year-old sisters who died with their father in August 2018 while kayaking off the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior. Only their mother survived. The others were a 9-year-old girl who disappeared while kayaking on Lake Michigan near Sheboygan in June 2010, and a 13-year-old girl who died in June 2011 when her jet-ski struck another boat.

Mike Bartz, a retired DNR conservation warden, guides anglers and canoers in northeastern Minnesota each summer. He said parents generally insist their kids wear lifejackets, but many don’t wear one themselves. A typical family in a canoe looks like this: The father paddles in the stern and mother in the bow. Neither wears a lifejacket, but their two or three children in between are buckled into lifejackets.

“That makes no sense, but you see it all the time,” Bartz said. “I’d like to ask if they really want their children to watch them die if they capsize. I don’t know one guide up here who goes out without wearing a PFD. Conditions can change too fast to risk it.”

Mike Neal, a DNR marine conservation warden on Lake Michigan the past 26 years, investigates drownings and boating accidents. He also teaches courses around the country on boating fatalities and accident reconstruction for the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.

Neal said many parents assume state law requires kids to wear lifejackets, but the Legislature has never made it mandatory. The U.S. Coast Guard, however, requires kids 12 and younger to wear lifejackets while on federal waters like Lake Michigan, Green Bay and the Mississippi River.

Like most wardens, Kuhn recalls sharing awful news with families of drowning victims. “Several years ago a guy drowned after falling in while trying to untangle his fishing line from the engine’s propeller,” Kuhn said. “He knew he wasn’t a good swimmer, and so his wife had bought him a self-inflatable lifejacket and made him promise he’d always wear it. But we found it under the console when we inspected his boat.”

Keith Cormican of Bruce’s Legacy in Black River Falls has found over 30 drowning victims since starting his nonprofit “search-and-recovery” operation in 2013. He considers it selfish for people to not wear lifejackets.

“If you drown and disappear, you can’t imagine the impact on the spouse, kids, and their finances,” Cormican said. “Coroners can’t issue a death certificate without a body. Without a death certificate, the family can’t get their insurance money. They’re on the hook for all your bills; and creditors want to be paid. If you wear a lifejacket, you have a much better chance of surviving. If you don’t survive, at least they’ll find you. That saves your family and searchers a lot of trouble.”

To learn more about boating safety in Wisconsin or to take an online boating class, click on

Wisconsin Boating-Related Fatalities, 2005-2020

Year Deaths Males No PFD Alcohol Canoe/Kayak/Rowboat/Board

2020 19 18 15 2, Pending 8

2019 09 08 07 Pending 2

2018 21 17 14 2 6*

2017 25 21 23 6 8*

2016 21 21 19 3 7

2015 21 20 19 8 4

2014 09 09 08 5 2

2013 13 13 11 1 2*

2012 23 21 17 11 4

2011 23 21 18 12 8

2010 18 13 14 4 2

2009 16 16 16 4 6

2008 20 19 16 9 8

2007 18 17 12 6 2

2006 10 NR 9 6 1

2005 22 NR 19 5 4

All: 288 234 236 64 74

(18 ave.) (88%) (82%) (22%) (26%)

* 1 Paddleboard fatality.

Men spend more time in boats than do women, so it’s no shock they make up 88% of Wisconsin's boating fatalities. But if a report states “victim jumped from moving boat,” it was probably a male, and alcohol was likely involved. — Patrick Durkin photo

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