Boating and Watercraft Drowning Deaths: 10 year analysis report

RLS Boating and Watercraft Report

A new Royal Life Saving Report has found that 473 people drowned in Australian waterways whilst participating in boating and watercraft activity over the past 10 years (2005/06 – 2014/15).

This report shows males accounted for 92% of all boating and watercraft related drowning deaths. This is even higher than the annual percentage of all male drowning deaths (83%) for 2015/16, highlighting the importance of boating and watercraft safety for males in particular. With the summer holiday period fast approaching, it is vital that this safety message reaches men around the country.

Almost one fifth of boating and watercraft drowning deaths (19%) occurred in people over the age of 65 years, with 90 deaths recorded, and followed by 88 deaths in the 35 – 44 years age group (18%). Drowning occurred whilst fishing (28%) and when moving (27%), and most often in small powered boats under 5 meters or paddle craft.

High risk behaviour such as not wearing a lifejacket and consuming drugs and alcohol are key issues when participating in boating and watercraft activity across Australia. This study found that only 8% of people were wearing a lifejacket at the time of death, 31% had consumed drugs, of which 31% were illegal drugs; 26% of people had alcohol in their system, with 59% above the legal driving limit.

Royal Life Saving Society – Australia CEO, Justin Scarr says “With boating and watercraft activity a popular pastime for Australians, we urge people to take the appropriate measures to have an enjoyable and safe time on the water. It’s important to wear a lifejacket, avoid alcohol and drugs, be prepared and check conditions, and never go alone”.

Boating and watercraft activity accounted for 473 drowning deaths over the past 10 years, and represents on average 16% of drowning deaths annually. Boating remains the second leading activity prior to drowning behind swimming and recreating.

The lack of wearing lifejackets and the consumption of alcohol whilst participating in boating and watercraft activity, remain key risk factors for drowning.

This study found that only 8% of people who drowned were reported to have worn a lifejacket. Of those not wearing a lifejacket, 14% were had been carrying them onboard the vessel at the time of the incident. The importance of wearing a lifejacket at all times cannot be underestimated.

Alcohol consumption was also a contributing factor for drowning. Of the 124 cases recorded to have alcohol present, 59% of recorded a blood alcohol concentration over 0.05mg/L, the amount deemed over the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle. More people were found to be over the limit in the evening than any other time, compounding the risk for drowning at night. A higher number of drowning deaths involved drugs (30%) than alcohol, of which 31% were illegal drugs. Royal Life Saving stresses that consuming drugs when using boats and watercraft is just as dangerous as alcohol.  The consequences of taking drugs and alcohol include impaired judgment and coordination, slow reaction times and increased risk taking behaviour.

Most boating drowning deaths occurred in small boats under 5 meters in length (21%). The highest number of watercraft drowning deaths occurred when using paddle craft (kayaks, canoes, surf skis) (33%). It is important to always be prepared and carry essential safety equipment, and advise someone of where you are going and when you expect to be back.

Almost two thirds (64%) of people who drowned whilst participating in boating or watercraft activity were not visitors to the location. This finding shows that most people are locals and familiar with the area. People need to always be aware of their environment and be vigilant when around water.

Almost one quarter (23%) of people were involved in a multiple fatality event, where more than one person drowned during the incident. Boats should never be overloaded with more weight than it can safely carry. This also highlights the importance of having the right sized lifejackets for everyone on board the vessel and ensure everyone is wearing them at all times.

One third (33%) of boating and watercraft drowning deaths were known to have a pre-existing medical condition, most commonly cardiac-related diseases. Being aware of medical conditions is important, as this can impact on fitness and ability in the water. Royal Life Saving recommends that people aged 55 years and over undergo regular medical check-ups, allowing early detection of chronic disease, as well as appropriate monitoring and treatment.

This report follows the release of the Australian Water Safety Strategy 2016-2020 in April this year. The Strategy identifies boating and watercraft related drowning deaths as a key challenge. “By targeting areas of high concern, leading water safety organisations are able to focus resources where they are most needed and work together to create effective drowning prevention strategies”, says Justin Scarr, “We would like to acknowledge the vital work and commitment of Federal, State and Territory Marine Transport Authorities, the Boating Industry as a whole, water safety and rescue agencies, and national sporting organisations, via the work of the Australia New Zealand Safe Boating Education Group (ANZBEG), towards boating and watercraft safety across Australia”.

To download a copy of the full report please click here.

A range of spokespeople are available to speak to this release including Justin Scarr, CEO and Stacey Pidgeon, Senior Project Officer – Research & Policy (author of the report) from Royal Life Saving Society - Australia.

Media enquiries to Media Key on 03 9769 6488

Key drowning facts

  • 473 people drowned when using boats and watercraft between 1 July 2005 and 30 June 2015
  • 72% occurred whilst boating and 29% whilst using watercraft
  • 92% of all drowning deaths were male
  • 88 (18%) drowning deaths occurred in people aged 35 - 44 years
  • 82 (17%) drowning deaths occurred in people aged 45 - 54 years
  • 81 (17%) drowning deaths occurred in people aged 25 - 34 years
  • 90 (19%) drowning deaths occurred in people aged 65 years and over
  • 248 (52%) drowning deaths occurred in oceans and harbours
  • 152 (33%) drowning deaths occurred at inland waterway locations
  • 132 (28%) people were fishing immediately prior to drowning
  • 127 (27%) people were moving whilst on their vessel immediately prior to drowning
    * 58 (12%) people drowned as a result of falling overboard into water

State and Territory breakdown

  • 149 (31%) drowning deaths occurred in New South Wales
  • 121 (26%) drowning deaths occurred in Queensland
  • 57 (12%) drowning deaths occurred in Victoria
  • 63 (13%) drowning deaths occurred in Western Australia
  • 12 (3%) drowning deaths occurred in Northern Territory
  • 35 (7%) drowning deaths occurred in South Australia
  • 34 (7%) drowning deaths occurred in Tasmania
    * 2 (0.4%) drowning deaths occurred in Australian Capital Territory

Key prevention strategies

  • Wear a lifejacket: Ensure lifejackets are worn by all people on board, including competent swimmers. They need to be properly fitted to be effective, including children’s lifejackets
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs around water: Alcohol and drugs impair judgment and increase risk-taking behaviour, affects coordination and reaction time, making it difficult to get out of trouble
  • Be prepared: It is important to check the weather report before and during watercraft activity, and keep an lookout for bad weather whilst out on the water
  • Never go alone: Always go with a friend and inform others not on board of your destination and when you intend to return, particularly in remote locations
  • Learn how to save a life: Learn lifesaving skills, as well as first aid/resuscitation so you are able to respond in an emergency

Definitions and Terms are as per the Australian Water Safety Strategy 2016-2020

  • Boats: Water-based wind or motor powered vessels, boats, ships and personal watercraft (e.g. boats, jet skis, sail boats, yachts, catamarans).
  • Watercraft: Water-based non-powered recreational equipment such as those that are rowed or paddled (e.g. rowboats, surf boards, kayaks, canoes, stand up paddle boards, body boards, wind surfers, inflatable rafts and inflatable boats without motors)