St. Paul – In a state where boating is king – especially given
the temporary window during which to operate in a given year – DNR
officials are somewhat awestruck by boating accident and fatality
statistics as the backside of summer begins.
“It’s a little spooky, really,” said Tim Smalley, DNR boat and
water safety specialist.
Just one boating fatality. On average, Smalley says, there have
been nine at this point in the summer, during the past 10
Non-fatal boating accidents, too, have declined dramatically,
from an average of 56 this time of year the past 10 years, to just
29 this year.
Non-boating drownings have dipped from a 10-year average of 21
the past 10 years, to 12 this year.
“It’s amazingly good,” Smalley said of this summer’s
water-safety record. “But we’re wondering what’s going on. I don’t
think we’ve ever had this type of situation this time of year.”
Smalley said it’s possible boating activity might be down some
this summer, given weather that’s been warm during the past month,
but also has included rain and storms at regular intervals.
But even with somewhat reduced boating activity, Smalley says
such a reduction in accidents and fatalities wasn’t expected, given
that there are more than 800,000 boats registered in the state.
“Obviously this is not a trend, and things could still change
this summer,” he said. “But it’s a happy problem to have.”
Three of the state’s biggest “boating holidays” have passed –
Memorial Day weekend, the state’s fishing opener, and the Fourth of
July holiday. Not a single boating fatality was recorded during any
of those height-of-boating periods.
Two years ago, the state recorded its lowest ever number of
boating fatalities – 12. That historical low number was equalled in
It was about the mid-1980s, Smalley said, when boating
enforcement crackdown – on things like boating while intoxicated –
began to noticeably curb boating deaths. Before that, the 1960s saw
years with nearly 60 boating fatalities – and with far fewer boats
than what are being operated today.
“Around 1986, BWIs started to come more online,” Smalley said.
“Back then, about 50 percent of boating deaths were
alcohol-related; today, it’s about 30 percent.”
While there was a downward trend in boating fatalities beginning
in the ’80s, there have been a few spikes along the way, including
30 in 2002. Those years with higher numbers typically include
accidents with multiple fatalities.
Smalley recalls a St. Croix River crash in Stillwater involving
two power boats that claimed five lives during the July 4th weekend
of 1999. Two other boaters also died that weekend, in Otter Tail
In that area of the St. Croix, for a long time following the
crash, state conservation officers noted a marked decrease in
drinking and boating, Smalley said.
“I think people really found religion after that,” he said.
“Officers would check boaters, and some of them wouldn’t even have
beer on board.”
All those killed in the St. Croix crash that occurred around
1:30 a.m. were considered legally (for motor vehicle operation)
The only fatality this year occurred May 2, on Lake of the
Woods, Smalley said.
That boating accident claimed the life of a 27-year-old woman
According to Smalley, Jennifer Lynn Powassin, of Windigo Island
(located on the Canadian side of Lake of the Woods), was boating
alone in the area of Flag Island and Oak Island. Her boat was a
16-footer with a 40-hp motor. It’s unknown how she fell or was
ejected from the boat, but her body was found floating face-down by
other boaters at about 8:30 a.m.
The water that morning was described as “choppy” (between 6-inch
and 2-foot waves).
Smalley said boating law enforcement hasn’t necessarily been
stepped up this year; for the second year in a row, the nationwide
“Operation Dry Water” took place, focused on boating while
intoxicated. A weekend storm might have kept some boaters off lakes
and rivers that weekend, he said.
There’s also been an increase in enforcement activities directed
at invasive aquatic species since a new law took effect in July.
Heightened DNR conservation officer presence at boat accesses might
be to some degree curbing illegal and dangerous activity, Smalley
DNR officials also are quick to point out increased use of life
jackets by youth in boats. Twenty-five years ago, about 47 percent
of kids under age 10 were wearing life jackets, Smalley says. Now,
due largely to a state law that mandates their use for that age
category, usage has jumped to 96 percent.
There’s also the DNR/Dairy Queen partnership – the PFD Panda
Award – that includes a certificate for a free ice-cream cone or
cheeseburger at participating DQs for kids wearing life
According to a DNR press release, DNR conservation officers have
been called over to family boats by children so they can earn a
life jacket award.
“It makes for a nice, positive contact (for COs),” Smalley
According to Smalley, boating – and associated accidents –
usually tapers off in August. However, anglers continue to hit the
water until freeze-up, as do fall duck hunters in the state.