Coast Guard Great Lakes Boating Report Troubling
by Tom Rau

I salute the folks at District Nine headquarters in Cleveland for their fine tracking system regarding recreational boating activity across the Great Lakes. Their 2007 report on recreational boating provides insightful and, in some cases, troubling figures. For better or for worse, the report definitely merits review.

During 2007, Coast Guard crews across the Great Lakes responded to 4,112 search and rescue cases. Ninety-five percent of those cases involved recreational water related activities. Photo, Tom Rau/Boat Smart.

During 2007 Coast Guard units across the Great Lakes conducted 4,112 search and rescue cases that involved 9,108 people with 567 lives saved. The down side: 115 lives were lost, an alarming 28-percent increase over 2006 fatality figures.

The leading cause of lives lost was drowning, accounting for 43-percent of deaths; nearly all could have been prevented with life jacket use; none involved heavy weather.

Only one percent of Coast Guard cases involved foul weather. As weather had little to do with most boating mishaps, so too were boaters requiring assistance in deep water far from shore.

Of the 4,112 rescues Coast Guard crews conducted across the Great Lakes, only 17-percent occurred further than a mile off shore and most of those were within five miles. So if it’s not weather, not boaters stranded afar, then why the need for all these rescues?

According to the figures, the leading cause of request for Coast Guard assistance is mechanical breakdowns, followed by boaters’ misjudgment and inexperience, followed by boaters running aground. These factors accounted for over 50 percent of Coast Guard responses.

The primary means of notifying the Coast Guard was a cellular phone, which accounted for 37-percent of calls, with the marine radio second at 29-percent. Although apparently effective, the cellular phone simply does not offer the life-saving advantages of a marine radio.

The marine radio is monitored not only by the Coast Guard, but other recreational boaters, and commercial vessels; it offers radio directional finding capabilities, allowing Coast Guard radio receivers to home in on a distressed vessel; and it is not subject to dead zones that cellular phones experience. The cell phone is an excellent backup to the marine radio but by no means a worthy replacement.

Power boats accounted for 50-percent of rescue cases, followed by sailboats at 14 percent, then by personal watercraft at 11 percent. In all, recreational boaters accounted for 94 percent of rescue calls.

The huge disparity between commercial vessels requiring so little assistance and recreational boaters requiring so much has a great deal to do with federal mandates that govern the commercial fleet. Federal laws mandate that the commercial fleet be boat smart. On the other hand, the only skills that are required of recreational boaters is the ability to turn an ignition key, hoist a sail, or dip a paddle. This cavalier approach has cost the lives of over 47,000 recreational boaters since 1964 when the Coast Guard began tracking recreational boating fatalities.

These askew figures can be balanced if boaters are required to boat smart. Mandatory education should apply to all boaters regardless of age and date of birth as some states have wiggled into law. I believe the best case for mandatory education hails from adult boaters who have taken a boating safety course. A common response from these folks is how naive they were regarding boating safety and their welfare on the water.

Another strong case for mandatory boating education is my book, Boat Smart Chronicles, Lake Michigan Devours Its Wounded. The book is based on over 20 years of documented Coast Guard rescues involving recreational boaters with valuable lessons learned. The book’s many cases reveal just how naive boaters can be when it comes to their safety.

Better to learn these lessons on shore than afloat, as one young lad proclaimed. Asked by Jim Shepard, instructor for the United States Power Squadron, why he took the course, the lad responded: “Because I read Boat Smart Chronicles, and it scared the heck out of me.”

Go to and link to boating safety courses offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary and United States Power Squadron. Be smart this winter, learn to boat smart.

Tom Rau is a long-time Coast Guard rescue responder and syndicated boating safety columnist. Look for his book, Boat Smart Chronicles, a shocking expose on recreational boating — reads like a great ship’s log spanning over two decades. It’s available to order at:,,, or through local bookstores.