Danger on the water: Oregon’s boating system has some huge gaps

Danger on the water: Oregon’s boating system has some huge gaps »Play Video

From kayaking to river cruises to wake-boarding, summer is the time to hit the water in the Pacific Northwest. But not everyone shares the waterways responsibly. The KATU On Your Side Investigators discover that sailing Oregon’s rivers, lakes and shores is more dangerous than we thought, and it’s no accident why.

The end of June marks the start of the most dangerous months for boaters in the state. Oregon’s averaged 66 boating accidents a year over the last decade – 13, on average, are fatal.

Our rivers and lakes get more crowded all the time. But it’s not the traditional watercraft making waves; in fact, the number of registered boaters is down. So why did the number of watercraft-related deaths in Oregon reach 19 in 2012? The Oregon Marine Board believes it has a lot to do with SUP, or stand-up paddle boarding. No longer a fad, SUP has floated to the top of the outdoor sports heap in Oregon, Washington and the rest of the Pacific Northwest.

But the rise in popularity has put people at risk, according to the OMB. Since 2009, there have been three deaths on SUPs, all of them on rivers: the Columbia, Willamette and Chetco. All of the people went in without the most basic safety measure - a lifejacket. Officials say each year thousands of people are flocking to waterways with little knowledge about their SUPs, where they’re operating, what the legal requirements are, and the skill needed to avoid an accident.

Kim Rueter with Gorge Performance says another one of the challenges is access points for non-motorized craft. She says one of the most popular SUP spots in Portland – Willamette Park off Southwest Macadam – is one of the better ones in city limits, but it happens to be a boat ramp. Come by any given Sunday, she says, and the traffic jam to get in the water is enormous – and dangerous.

Rueter says a big part of her lesson is talking about boat traffic.

“To get your boater's license, there is a boater's education course,” she said. “I could see it’s not out of line to have a river user's education course … that's more inclusive outside of just motorized boats.”

Whatever craft you choose, the people charged with keeping everyone safe on the water say they're also outnumbered.

“There's definitely days when it's overwhelming,” says Deputy Ben Turner, who patrols Henry Hagg Lake in Washington County. “On the weekends there's both of us out here, two boats, two of us versus 80,000 people sometimes. You kind of feel like you need to be everywhere at once, but you can’t.”

Oregon has programs like ODOT’s Safety Priority Index System (SPIS) to identify accident-prone highways that need extra resources and patrols.

But the state’s rivers, lakes and coastline have no such safety tracker; what information we have about accidents and what causes them is even kept from the federal government.

In most wrecks, it's up to the boater to fill out an accident report. They're only mandatory if there’s an injury, a death or more than $2,000 in property damage. This means most wrecks stay off the radar, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. A study of boating accidents found underreporting is a significant problem – 20 percent of serious accidents never get reported, and 40 percent of the minor crashes are never filed.

In Oregon, the actual boating accident reporting rate is as low as 10-15 percent, depending on the year.

And here's the real head-scratcher. Of the wrecks that are filed? We know less about them now than we did five years ago. In 2009 a change in Oregon and Washington law meant that the Coast Guard is no longer allowed to release the individual reports to the public - a fact confirmed by Oregon Marine Patrol Board Director Scott Brewen.

“It’s because lawsuits can happen,” he said. “This way, it protects operators to make sure we're getting the best info we can, that they're telling us the truth of what actually occurred. So we can use that information to improve boating safety in Oregon.”

But it’s a layer of protection boaters like Domenica Heyward couldn’t understand.

“If you're driving on a public road and you needed to know if it’s dangerous, I'm sure they would give you that information,” she said. “I don’t know why they’d do this if it was regarding public safety, especially children that are out here with their parents.”

Because fatalities have to be reported, the state does provide annual lists of those accidents and their locations.

2013 Oregon Boating Fatalities
2012 Oregon Boating Fatalities
2011 Oregon Boating Fatalities
2010 Oregon Boating Fatalities
2009 Oregon Boating Fatalities

The U.S. Coast Guard is able to go into some detail on state trends, type of craft, and alcohol’s influence on boating dangers. Follow this link for the USCG’s most recent accident statistics and reports: http://www.uscgboating.org/statistics/accident_statistics.aspx