A deadly mix for boaters: distractions, alcohol and no life jacket

In 2021, the Coast Guard reported 43 boating accidents and seven deaths in Connecticut. Stephen Fabian of Moodus fell from his personal watercraft and drowned. Her body was found near the Salmon River boat launch. Credit: Photo added / C-HIT.org

On a warm, slightly overcast Sunday afternoon last August 8, boaters near the Salmon River boat launch on the Connecticut River in East Haddam noticed a personal watercraft drifting without a driver. Less than an hour later, state environmental police recovered the body of a man floating nearby in a no-wake zone.

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Stephen Fabian, 59, of Moodus, fell from the boat and drowned. State environmental officials said his life jacket was ill-fitting and had slipped around his head, and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) reported that his blood alcohol level was well above the legal limit for intoxication.

“The way he died was tragic,” said his best friend, Dana Pitts of Westbrook. “He brought it on himself.” Fabian, a former licensed practical nurse, had once rescued a boater after an accident on the Connecticut River and performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation until medical personnel arrived, his family reported.

As a boating accident, Fabian’s was as typical as it was sad. The vast majority of boating accidents in the United States happen because people aren’t careful, wear life jackets or use substances, said Walt Taylor, boating safety specialist for the Coast Guard. American in Boston.

In 2021, the Coast Guard reported 43 boating accidents and seven deaths in Connecticut. In 2020, there were more boating accidents in Connecticut — 54 — but fewer fatalities, three, according to the Coast Guard’s Annual Boating Statistics Report.

Although these numbers are small, what is striking about the deaths is that they could all have been avoided. Taylor said he avoids calling boating accidents accidents, preferring the word “incidents” because they are often the result of choice.

Five of the seven men who died boating in Connecticut waters in 2021 were not wearing life jackets, and a sixth, Fabian, was wearing an ill-fitting one. If they had worn proper life jackets — technically known as personal flotation devices, or PFDs — they likely would have survived, Taylor said. The seventh died of blunt trauma.

Similar to Connecticut, nationally boating accidents decreased in 2021 to 4,439 from 5,265 in 2020. But unlike Connecticut, boating fatalities nationally also decreased from 2020 to 2021, going from 767 to 658.

According to the Coast Guard report, about 80% of boating deaths in the United States last year were due to drowning after falling overboard. And of those who drowned, 83% were not wearing a life jacket. Alcohol consumption is the biggest contributing factor to boating accidents and the main cause of 16% of accidents nationwide, according to the report.

Boaters are legally intoxicated with a blood alcohol level of 0.08% or 0.02% for those under 21. And Connecticut law requires people to wear life jackets on board and for children under 12 to wear one when on the deck of a ship. Anyone in a “hand-propelled” watercraft, such as a canoe or kayak, must wear a life jacket between October 1 and May 31.

The problem, Taylor acknowledged, is that once a boat starts to capsize, it’s too late to grab the PFDs and put them on.

“No one is planning to get out on the boat and, quote-unquote, accidentally fall overboard,” Taylor said. “It’s the same logic as not putting on your seatbelt until you need it. If you end up in the water, it’s too late.

Fabian’s death and most of the other boating deaths in Connecticut last year are grim proof of this statement. On April 10, a kayak capsized at Long Meadow Pond in Middlebury. The 26-year-old paddler struggled and submerged, drowning despite the efforts of witnesses to find and save him. His body was found the following day. Officials said he was not wearing a life jacket and had marijuana in his blood and a blood alcohol level of 0.012.

On May 8, Michael Lowell, 58, of Putnam, was kayak fishing in the Quinebaug River in Pomfret. Two companions in other boats paddled upstream, and when they returned could not find Lowell and reported him missing. His overturned boat was later found several miles downstream and his body floating 198 meters away from him, DEEP reported. Officials determined that he had drowned; he was not wearing a life jacket.

On June 8, 50-year-old Philip Blouin, who had gone fishing in a motorized canoe the previous night, was found dead after his family reported him missing. He was not wearing a life jacket, his blood alcohol level was 0.180 and THC was detected in his blood. Additionally, officials said he did not have the required boating safety certificate and the unregistered boat’s trolling motor was wrapped around fishing line.

“Nobody plans to get out on the boat and, in quotes, accidentally fall overboard. It’s the same logic as not putting on your seatbelt until you need it. If you find yourself in the water, it’s too late.

Walt Taylor, Boating Safety Specialist, US Coast Guard

Two men launched a canoe in Stamford and capsized near Woodway Beach Club on July 10. Four club lifeguards rescued and attempted to revive Lorenzo Macua, 63, from Norwalk, but he was pronounced dead at Stamford Hospital. The second canoeist, 50, was not identified, but officials said he swam to shore and was uninjured. None of them were wearing life jackets.

Akida Edwards, 45, of New York, ventured overnight kayaking in Lake Wyassup in North Stonington on September 25. He was reported missing. Divers found his body late the next morning. DEEP said he drowned after falling off the boat and alcohol and drugs were found in his system.

Last year’s only boating accident without drowning occurred on July 27, when 18-year-old Matthew A. Horvath of Shelton and a friend were riding their personal watercraft off Cedar Beach in Milford when they entered colliding. Horvath, a college football player who graduated from Shelton High School that spring, died of blunt force trauma. Authorities have not identified the other runner, who was not injured. DEEP officials said neither were wearing life jackets and speed may have contributed to the accident. Alcohol was detected in Horvath’s system, DEEP spokesman Matt Healey said.

“Anyone who uses a personal watercraft should understand that it is a motor vehicle, similar to a car but on water,” Healey said. “Before getting in the water, operators must take boating safety courses and obtain their personal watercraft operator’s certificate. Life jackets must be worn at all times and safe speeds must be maintained. Alcohol should never be consumed while launching or on water or while operating any type of vessel.

Not being careful is the fatal cause of most boating accidents in the United States, Taylor said. Even when sober, distraction is a big factor. He said people were paying too much attention to their radar, fish finder and navigational devices. “A lot of times people get so fixated on these things that they don’t look straight ahead.”

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This story was reported in partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (c-hit.org), a nonprofit news organization dedicated to health reporting.