Lake Powell's blue water, winding red-rock canyons and sandy beaches form a vacation paradise for nearly 2 million visitors a year. But beware.
More serious recreational boating accidents occur there than at any of the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River or even the Pacific Ocean's U.S. coast.
In fact, Lake Powell recorded the sixth highest rate of boating accidents of any body of water in America since 1995. Half of all Utah boating accidents occurred there, too.
If that is not eye-widening enough, here is another worrisome fact for Utahns as they begin heading for lakes this spring: Utah has the nation's fourth highest rate for accidents per registered boat.
In other words, Utahns are America's fourth-worst boaters.
Most Utah accidents occur as boats hit one another, or other objects, when water is calm and visibility is good but caution and lookout are apparently poor. The vast majority of operators in accidents have no formal boating training, which is required by many states, but not for most boaters in Utah.
And then Utahns sometimes make tragically foolish choices. Among the 44 people who drowned in Utah boating accidents between 1995 and 2005, 35 were not wearing a personal flotation device (life vest). And 27 of them did not know how to swim but went boating without wearing a flotation device anyway.
"I think that with just a little bit more caution and education, most of the accidents and deaths here could be prevented," says David Harris, boating coordinator for the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation.Those findings come through a Deseret Morning News analysis of the U.S. Coast Guard's database of U.S. boating accidents between 1995 and 2005. The database tracks recreational accidents that involve any deaths, injuries requiring more than first aid, or property damage greater than $2,000.
Utahns are three times more likely to be in a serious boat accident than the typical American boater.
Between 1995 and 2005, Utah had an accident rate of 16.4 per 1,000 registered boats. That is three times higher than the national average, data show.
Utah's rate was fourth highest among the states, behind only Nevada (24.5 per thousand), Arizona (19.5) and Maine (18.7).
In 2005, the last year for which national comparisons are currently available, Utah still had the fourth-worst rate that year behind Nevada, Arizona and Alaska.
While it is not gaining on other states, Utah's accident rate has dropped sharply over the decade by 55 percent, 13th best among the states.
However, Harris, who provides Utah data to the Coast Guard, warns that apparent drop may come largely because of a change in what accidents are reported.
Halfway through that period, the Coast Guard changed from requiring reports on accidents with more than $500 in property damage to reporting only those with $2,000 or more in damage."So all of a sudden, we didn't have to report as many," he said.
Where accidents occur
Lake Powell records almost as many serious boating accidents as all other Utah lakes and rivers combined. Mayer and Harris say it also may have twice the number of boaters as all other lakes combined.
Of the 1,237 reported serious Utah accidents during the decade, 573 (46 percent) occurred in the Utah portion of Lake Powell.
That was more than six times as many as second-place Bear Lake's 90 accidents. It was followed in order by Willard Bay (75 accidents), Utah Lake (58), Pineview and Flaming Gorge (tied at 49), Deer Creek (40), Jordanelle (39), Quail Creek (34) and East Canyon (32).
Overall, 41 Utah lakes and rivers reported at least one serious boating accident. The state had 81 boat-accident fatalities during the period (from drownings, trauma, carbon monoxide and other causes), and 646 injuries that were serious but not fatal.
Lake Powell's overall total of serious accidents (788, including those occurring on its Arizona portion) was enough to place it sixth for accidents among national bodies of water.
Mike Mayer, chief ranger at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which includes Lake Powell and surrounding territory, wonders if that is a statistical anomaly, too.
"Glen Canyon takes safety very seriously, so we record everything every accident," he said. "Areas that don't do a good job of reporting may show a skewed safety record," he said.
But he says the lake can indeed sometimes be tricky for unwary boaters.
For example, boaters in side canyons may enjoy relatively calm water and weather only to find storms and very rough water when they exit into the main channel. "That happened to a kayaker who died this year. She hit rough water in the main channel and tipped over. The water was cold, and hypothermia got to her before she could get to shore," Mayer said.
Also, he warned, "Lake Powell is a reservoir, and the water level and the condition of the lake itself can change literally overnight." Quickly rising water can hide rocks that had poked out of the water previously. To avoid that problem, he said boaters not familiar with the lake should stay in deep, clearly marked main channels.
Harris said that national boating safety managers have noticed that the stretch of the Colorado River and lakes on it from Lake Powell to Mexico is easily the deadliest and most accident-prone in the country, if it were considered as one continuous body.
Harris said the smooth lower Colorado, Lake Mead and Lake Havasu are especially "known as places to party (for Californians), so there are a lot of accidents especially those that are related to alcohol. Lake Powell on the north has more of a family atmosphere."Ironically, the rough-and-tumble upper Colorado, known for its whitewater rafting, has only a relative handful of serious accidents reported. That includes just 10 accidents (and four fatalities) in Utah's portion of the upper Colorado during the decade.
Most accidents in Utah likely could be avoided with a little extra caution.
The most common is collision between boats, accounting for about a third of all Utah boat accidents.
Another 9 percent of accidents are collisions with fixed objects; 9 percent involve grounding boats; 8 percent are skier mishaps; 7 percent are falls overboard; and 6 percent involve capsizing.
The data show that 90 percent of accidents happened when visibility was good; 55 percent occurred when waters were calm.
What actions contributed to such accidents?
"Operator inexperience" was listed as a factor in 16 percent of Utah accidents. (In fact, data show that one of every five accidents involved an operator with fewer than 10 hours of experience.)
"Operator inattention" was listed in 15 percent; excessive speed, 13 percent; no proper lookout, 10 percent; weather, 9 percent; and machinery/equipment failure, 8 percent.
Harris notes that many of those categories are somewhat similar and might be lumped into one super category called something like "operator carelessness."
"That, by far, would be behind most accidents," he said and it is largely preventable.Of note, alcohol was listed as a factor in only 3 percent of boat accidents in Utah far below the 12 percent average nationally. Harris said that is likely because of Utah's large population of non-drinking members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Harris says a good way to cut the number of accidents and deaths may be to mandate boater education.
After all, data show that 94 percent of Utah boat operators involved in fatal accidents had no formal boating education from such groups as the state, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the Red Cross or U.S. Power Squadrons.
Richard Droesbeke, boating education coordinator for the state, gives an example of how Utah boaters may not know as much as they think and could benefit from some basic training.
"Every year at the boat show we have a booth and offer a 10-question quiz. People will come up and say things like, 'I've been boating for 30 years, so sure I'll take your quiz,"' he says.
"I have found that consistently, from year to year, the average score is only five or six correct" out of 10. That is a D-minus or F for knowledge among boaters about basic safety and navigation rules.
Questions this year ask which boats would have the right of way in different situations, on which side boats should pass navigation buoys, how much distance should be kept from other boats and fishermen, and what times of day water skiing is permitted. Droesbeke said all that should be common boater knowledge.
Utah law requires very little formal boating education. It requires classes only for those youth ages 12 to 17 who want to operate personal watercraft on their own.
Some states require much more. Alabama, Connecticut and Hawaii require it for all boat operators. Another 22 states require it for people born after certain dates (exempting some adults) or are phasing in education requirements. Nineteen, including Utah, require some training for some teenagers.
Only six states have even more lax boating education requirements than Utah and require no training for anyone: Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, South Dakota and Wyoming.
A study this year by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators found that the longer a state has had boating education requirements, the lower the fatality rate. Those with no education requirements have the highest fatality rates.
Harris notes that Utah officials have attempted three times in the past decade to push legislation to require boating education for all boat operators. "It never went far," he said. Last year, a legislative interim committee declined to sponsor a bill that Harris and others sought to mandate such training.
Meanwhile, Utah offers a voluntary boat education course available through the Internet at www.boat-ed.com/ut/.
"We have fewer than 200 people take it a year," Harris said. Droesbeke said the state this year is offering free T-shirts as an added incentive to those who take it and pass. Harris said insurance companies also usually offer discounts to graduates.
Harris said an example of how education may help is shown by its mandated training for youths who want to use personal watercraft.When Utah started requiring that training in 1995, it had 133 accidents with personal watercraft that year. By 2005, that number had decreased to just 29. Meanwhile, the number or personal watercraft in the state has increased from 7,000 to 15,000. Harris figures 30,000 Utahns (youths with required adults in attendance) took the course in that time, leading to the improvement.
Officials in Utah say deaths from boating accidents could be vastly reduced if everyone wore life vests.
It is required by law only for children age 12 and under and for waterskiers or others towed by boats or people on rivers. Otherwise, laws require only that boats carry enough life-saving jackets for all passengers, but it does not mandate that they wear them.
"The trouble is they may not be able to get to them or put them on in cold or rough water or in an emergency," Harris said.
He said the state encourages all boaters to always wear them when under way. Mayer said rangers at Lake Powell try to set an example by always wearing their life jackets on the water.
But Droesbeke has an example of how few other adults wear them.
"We go into elementary schools for safety presentations. When I ask kids how many of their parents make them wear life jackets when they go boating, almost every hand goes up. When I ask them how many of their parents wear them, too, almost every hand goes down," he said.
As stated, of 44 boat-accident drownings reported in Utah in the surveyed decade, 35 victims did not wear flotation devices. Even among the nine who did, only one wore a life vest designed to keep an unconscious person face up in an accident (Type I), while all others wore only lighter-duty life vests.
Droesbeke said many people don't like the vests, thinking they are uncomfortable or bulky. But he said modern inflatable designs are much more comfortable and in many cases even more effective than traditional devices.
Harris said, "They are so comfortable that sometimes I have gotten in my car and driven much of the way home before I realize that I forgot to take off my life jacket."
Harris said it might be wise to consider legislation to require all passengers to wear life jackets in at least certain types of boats that more easily capsize and create the highest threat of drowning, such as paddlecraft and small fishing motorboats. "We could get most the benefit by requiring wearing them on just a few types of boats."
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Brian Salerno, director of inspection and compliance, issued a statement last year that said the agency is considering whether to require flotation devices for those boaters most likely at risk.
He warned such regulations could still be far away.
"The problem is similar to the history behind the wearing of seat belts in automobiles. It took a concerted effort on the part of the automobile and insurance industries, federal and state enforcement agencies and national safety organizations to significantly increase the wear rate of seat belts," and he expects a similar effort is needed for life jackets.
Mayer at Lake Powell would like to see parents ensure that toddlers and babies wear them whenever they are near water, not just on boats.
"It seems like every year we have a toddler who drowns at the shore, not on a boat," he said. "A big group comes in for lunch from a houseboat. Everyone takes off their life jackets. In a split second, someone asks where the baby is. It's gone to the shore and fallen in. If (the child) had a life jacket on, it would be no problem at all."
He adds, "If you have little toddlers, put life jackets on them and don't ever take it off until you leave. Leave it on them 100 percent of the time at the lake. I can't overemphasize that."
Droesbeke said the state will emphasize life jackets for adults this year by having state park rangers approach adults they see wearing life jackets to reward them with a T-shirt that says, "I got caught ... wearing a life jacket." Rangers will also enter their names into a year-end drawing for prizes and merchandise.The state also offers "life jacket trees" at some major state parks for visitors to borrow a life jacket if they forgot one, or to borrow one of different size if needed.
Mayer, the chief ranger at Lake Powell, would like to see boaters act more like general aviation pilots and says that would save many lives.
"In general aviation, it is all about safety. There are pilot briefings and preflight checks. Good boaters should do the same thing. They should go through checklists. They should brief everyone on board about where to find life vests, or where to find the fire extinguisher. It would reduce problems by a great amount," he said.
Harris said that too often boaters fail to do the basics. For example, "They should never go out without checking a weather report. They should always keep an eye on the sky," he said.
That is especially important in Utah's mountain lakes, Droesbeke said. "If you are someplace like Strawberry, the clouds can come up over the mountain fast. And if you are hit with a thunderstorm there, you know it is likely to be severe for a while."
Harris noted that many lakes in Utah are reservoirs, where water levels can rise or drop quickly in different seasons. "Fluctuating water levels are a hazard. Some places you can go when water is high are a hazard when it is low. Also, things like logs can float in and create hazards. People need to have a good lookout."
Officials say they are doing what they can to promote such extra caution.
Mayer said the National Park Service at Lake Powell, for example, stresses safety steps in its newspaper handed out at entry points, and on signs throughout marinas.
He said such steps have helped reduce carbon monoxide poisoning deaths among passengers and swimmers who hang around exhaust areas of boats to the point that the lake has not had one in several years.
"We have had carbon monoxide poisonings. But, like in one instance with a family last year, the father was able to recognize the signs of what was happening because he had read about it and then get everyone out and up" into clear air, Mayer said.
Harris said the state is sending out a booklet on boating rules and safety to all Utahns with registered boats this year, also in hopes that it will help them be a little more cautious and educated."It would not take much effort to make people a lot safer," Harris said.