New Jersey sees increase in boating deaths

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New Jersey saw accidents and fatalities increase last year despite substantial decreases in boating accidents nationwide.

Although the numbers are relatively small, they came even after Hurricane Sandy destroyed scores of recreational boats and a sluggish economy caused many more to be drydocked.

Pinpointing a single reason for the increase is impossible, but authorities and boating enthusiasts say the impact of Hurricane Sandy on local waterways is being felt even now, two years after the storm.

"It's pretty busy every weekend because people want to get on the water," Coast Guard Petty Officer Cindy Oldham told The Press of Atlantic City, according to the Associated Press.

"I was out on the boat yesterday and there were places we shouldn't have run aground that we did," said Chuck Stuchel, general manager at West Marine in Somers Point. "The bottom has changed so much because of shoaling."

Alcohol has historically contributed to many fatalities — 16 percent nationwide last year and three of eight statewide in 2011, for example — and hasn't been ruled as a factor in any of New Jersey's eight deaths last year, according to Coast Guard data. Other leading factors across the state and nationwide include operator inattention or inexperience, excessive speed and navigational rule violations.

Officers regularly board vessels for safety checks and keep a lookout for boats that are steering erratically, creating wakes in no-wake zones or contain young children not wearing life jackets.

"A cop has to have probable cause to board you," Boatswain's Mate 3rd Class Louis Aversano said. "The Coast Guard, we're federal, so we can board any vessel, no matter what it's doing.”

Petty Officer 1st Class Nick Ameen said most boaters know the basics, but may slip up in practice. "Yes, you have to have a life jacket on board for every single passenger, but they need to be within reaching distance," he said.

Given how quickly an emergency can unfold, however, it's recommended that sailors wear one at all times. "Trying to put on a life jacket in an emergency is like trying to put on a seat belt in the middle of a car crash," he said.

Flares and other equipment should be regularly checked for expiration dates. And it helps to have a variety of safety equipment at your disposal, Ameen said. In one recent case, several people were rescued from the water when their signaling mirror was seen from the air.

Although most navigational charts have been updated since Sandy and the Coast Guard is proactive about replacing buoys, boaters should always be aware of their surroundings.

Stuchel said they need to keep in mind that many channels — particularly in the back bays — have become narrower. The changes the hurricane caused simply mean boaters need to pay close attention to navigational tools, he said.

"Local knowledge plays a big part of it: knowing the waters where you're boating," he said. "You need to rely on your depth finder to look at depth changes before you run aground."