KETCHIKAN, Alaska — Recreational boating accidents claimed 22 lives in Alaska during 2012, resulting in the Last Frontier having the highest fatality rate in the United States.
Alaska's fatality rate of 43.9 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational boats compares to the overall national rate of 5.4 last year, according to U.S. Coast Guard statistics published Monday.
The states with the next highest fatality rates were Hawaii (35.5), Montana (18.3) and Washington (13.0)
Alaska's 22 deaths in the 23 recreational boating accidents recorded by the Coast Guard in 2012 were a marked increase from recent years.
"We've been hovering around 12-14 fatalities (per year) for the last few years," said Jeff Johnson, the state boating law administrator with the Alaska Office of Boating Safety.
The state's overall trend had been improving, though. Johnson said Alaska's recreational boating fatalities during the past five years were about 17 percent lower than during the previous five-year period.
"Individual years are hard to use as a measure," Johnson said. "We like to see trends ... declining over time, understanding that we're going to have peak years and drops and back and forth, just like the stock market. Overall if we can keep that trend line moving down on fatalities, we feel as though we're making some progress."
The Coast Guard's "2012 Recreational Boating Statistics" is the latest installment in an annual series that provides a detailed look the frequency and type of boating accidents nationwide.
The report lists a total of 4,515 accidents, which resulted in 651 deaths, 3,000 injuries and $38 million in property damage across the country and U.S. territories.
According to the Coast Guard report's executive summary, the 2012 overall fatality rate of 5.4 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational boats is 12.9 percent lower than the fatality rate of 6.2 seen in 2011.
Nearly 71 percent of the 641 fatalities were drownings — and nearly 85 percent were reported as not wearing a life jacket, according to the report.
The five most frequent types of accidents nationally were collisions with a recreational vessel (1,010 accidents); flooding/swamping (509); collision with a fixed object (475); grounding (422) and skier mishap (387).
In Alaska, the five most frequent accidents in 2012 were flooding/swamping (six accidents); capsizing (four); falls overboard (four); collisions with a fixed object (three); and collision with a recreational vessel (three).
Johnson said Alaska's fatality profile is different than those reflected in the national statistics.
Unlike states such as Florida and Alabama that have a lot of collisions between recreational boats, "we have very, very few collision accidents in Alaska," Johnson said.
"Our fatality profile is almost always a capsize, fall overboard or swamping — from a small open boat — and the person wasn't wearing a lifejacket," he said. "(The occurrence of fatalities) is split about 50-50 between fresh and salt water, and about nine out of 10 of them are adult males."
Given Alaska's cold water and capricious weather, one might expect recreational boaters in the state to be regular wearers of life jackets.
That's accurate Alaska's kayakers and canoers, who had an 89.2-percent "observed wear rate" for life jackets during 2010-12, according to the Office of Boating Safety
People aboard powered recreational boats in Alaska are another story. They have only an 11.5-percent observed wear rate for PFDs.
"The paddleboat community —the kayakers and canoers — they get that the water is cold and they get that they're going to have a problem if they don't have a PFD on them and they go into the water," Johnson said. "But for some reason, our powerboat community hasn't gotten that message yet."
He described the three stages of cold-water immersion as starting with an initial, uncontrollable hyperventilation gasp reflex that occurs when the person first goes into cold water.
"If you don't have positive floatation, and your airway's not out of the water, that first breath is going to be saltwater or river, and you may not get a second breath," Johnson said.
Within 10 minutes or so, the person begins to lose peripheral nerve and muscle strength, making it difficult to perform fine-motor skills such as zipping up a life jacket or activating a visual distress signal.
"Then (the third stage), after 30 minutes or more, you begin to lose body core temperature gradually, up to an hour or more, before loss of useful consciousness," Johnson said.
He said most boating fatalities in Alaska's cold water aren't due to hypothermia, however.
"If people aren't wearing life jackets, they're drowning long before hypothermia becomes a factor," Johnson said, adding that studies have shown that good swimming ability is only a minor factor in cold-water survival rates. 'I'd rather have a non-swimmer with a life jacket on than an Olympic swimmer without one."
In general, the Office of Boating Safety recommends always wearing a life jacket on open boats and open boat decks.
— Always carry communication and signaling devices on your person.
— Have a way to get back on board a boat, either via a built-in device such as a swim step or an auxiliary device such as a rope ladder or sling.
— Solo operators always should have the engine cut-off lanyard attached to their person. ("We find a lot of boats going in circles with nobody in them," Johnson said.)
The Coast Guard's national statistics also list contributing factors for boating accidents nationwide.
The five main contributing factors were operator inattention, operator inexperience, improper lookout, machinery failure and excessive speed, according to report.
Alcohol use was the leading contributing factor in 17 percent of the recreational boating fatalities in 2012, according to the report.
Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, http://www.ketchikandailynews.com