Floridians love their boats. More than 1.1 million commercial and recreational vessels — from yachts to sailboats to canoes — were registered with the state last year. More than 133,700 were registered in the Tampa Bay area.
"Boating's fun," said Brian Rehwinkel, a public outreach officer for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "We're in a beautiful state where there are lots of great opportunities to go out there and enjoy it."
But Rehwinkel has a tough job getting boaters to heed safety warnings. Unlike driving a car or flying a plane, navigating a boat in potentially treacherous waters requires no license or education for anyone older than 21.
Last week's highly publicized boating accident involving two NFL players and two former USF football players was a grim reminder of what happens when a leisurely outing goes wrong. Only Nick Schuyler was rescued. Marquis Cooper, Corey Smith and Will Bleakley are presumed dead.
Pinellas County had 49 boating accidents reported in 2007; three were fatal. (Numbers for 2008 are unavailable.) Rehwinkel says most could have been prevented if the boaters had paid closer attention to basic safety precautions.
Here are four things to consider before heading out to sea.
Marine forecasts can save your life.
Strong easterly winds of more than 10-15 knots can cause deceptively calm conditions close to shore. But just a few miles out the seas can get a lot rougher. Strong westerly winds can make offshore boating uncomfortable and dangerous.
If you didn't pay close attention to the marine forecast, or you're not sure what it means, ask someone knowledgeable before heading out.
State records indicate 88 percent of boating-related deaths in Florida last year could have been avoided if the victims were wearing life jackets.
Think you're an excellent swimmer? That may not help you if your boat breaks down or capsizes in the gulf.
The shock of an unexpected fall or chilly water can suck energy from your body. So can a struggle to put on a life jacket in the water.
In most fatal accidents, Rehwinkel said, boaters had personal flotation devices on board, but they were not worn or within easy reach.
Anyone planning to go offshore should look hard at buying an emergency position indicating radio beacon, or an EPIRB, which transmits GPS and radio signals that rescuers can use to find a craft in distress. The devices can cost a few hundred dollars but can be the difference between living and dying.
A charter boat owner said he suggested Cooper buy an EPIRB two days before the ill-fated fishing trip. Cooper didn't have one when his boat capsized.
A float plan can be as simple as taking a few minutes to scribble down the day's itinerary, or leaving a more detailed map with coordinates and specific times. The float plan should include descriptions of your boat, who is on board, a description of the safety equipment you are carrying, where you expect to be, and when you expect to be there. Leave it with someone who can notify the Coast Guard if you don't return on time. Most important: Stick to the plan. A Coast Guard search in the wrong place wastes precious time.
For more safety information, or to see a calendar of boating classes held in your area, visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Web site at www.myfwc.com.
Times staff writers Terry Tomalin and Brant James contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at (727) 893-8472 or firstname.lastname@example.org.