I was having a debate with a powerboater yesterday about whether or not sailors were better boaters than powerboaters. My contention was that they were - predicated on the idea that sailors need to invest more time and effort into sailing, so they tend to be more aware and informed, whereas powerboaters frequently just jump in a boat and drive it like a car. Sailors are much more aware of environmental considerations, and less likely to go out while intoxicated. I also hypothesized that a sailor was more likely to be wearing a PFD if they went in the water. Mostly conjecture just based on my biases. So, I decided to figure out if was true.
His argument, by the way, was that powerboats are more controllable, and therefore safer. I conceded that, while that may be true, it didn't offset the generally higher level of seamanship exhibited by sailors.
Here's what I found out:
In 2012, there were about 12,101,936 state registered recreational vessels in the US. That alone blew my mind. Of these, 244,264 were some type of sailboat (about half with a motor and half without). Keep in mind, in some states, you don't need to register some kinds of boats (including sailboats). So, roughly 2% of all registered boats were sailboats. Also, about 11,097,404 were mechanically propelled with no sail - or 91.7%. (The remaining 6.3% were kayaks, canoes, rowboats, etc.) That means there were just over 45 times as many powerboats as sailboats registered. So, for my assertion to be true, powerboaters should have at least 46 times as many accidents. This is skewed somewhat because USCG (where I got my stats) report all accidents, even in states where an involved sailboat was not registered. But, it should be close.
Assertion #1: Sailors get in fewer accidents than smokers. (Waterworld reference)
Nope. Of the 5900 vessels involved in accidents, 5106 were powerboats of some kind, and 330 were sailboats of some kind. That is one powerboat accident for every 2173 registered powerboats, and one sailboat accident for every 740 registered sailboats. Or, a registered sailboat is about 3 times more likely to be involved in an accident than a powerboat. (Of course, this doesn't account for time on the water. One could argue that sailboats spend a lot more time actually moving - possibly three times as much or more.)
This is also tricky, though, because a high percentage of accidents are due to vessel collisions. So, if a powerboat and sailboat collide, this will skew the numbers drastically in favor of powerboats, rationally speaking.
1 in 45 boats were sailing at the time of the accident, though 1 in 50 boats were sailboats. This suggests that the actual act of sailing isn't any less dangerous than motoring - a little more, in fact.
Assertion #2: Sailors are less likely to be involved in a fatal accident.
This is also a little tricky because the high percentage of vessel collisions, particularly where fatalities are concerned. But, the fatality numbers pretty closely mirror the vessel numbers: 476 powerboat fatalities, 27 sailboat fatalities. That's one fatality for every 23,314 powerboats, and one for every 9047 sailboats. You're about 2.6 times more likely to die on (or near) a sailboat.
Assertion #3: Sailors are more experienced and better educated about safe boating than smokers, leading to fewer accidents.
Well, it's a little hard to nail this one down, but there does seem to a be a direct relationship between boating safety instruction and boating safety. I don't know if we can say that this is causal. It may just be that people who take boating safety instruction are just more serious about safety, and therefore less likely to be in an accident, regardless of specific instruction. But, it does look positive. About 3/4 of all accidents were caused by a person with no or unknown boater education.
Bad news is that experience is no predictor of safety. The most destructive category, by far, is the group of boaters with 100-500 hours of experience - people who are just confident enough to do something really stupid. (By the way, this is almost exactly the same stat as for pilots.)
I don't know if sailors are more/less likely to have formal safety education or any amount of experience, but the proof of sailors' ultimate superiority (or not) is in the primary cause statistics. When you look at the primary cause listed for each injury accident, in powerboats, some form of operator negligence is named in about 57% of accidents. For sailboats, the percentage is almost exactly the same.
A few stats about primary cause:
- Interestingly, excessive speed is listed as the primary cause in the same percentage of powerboat accidents as sailboat (no motor) accidents. In other words, excessive speed sailing is statistically as dangerous as excessive speed on a powerboat.
- Weather is listed as the primary cause in about 12% of sailboat accidents, but less than 5% of powerboat accidents.
- Navigation rules violations were the primary causes of about 14% of powerboat accidents and about 16% of sailboat accidents. (I wouldn't have predicted that.)
- Drugs/alcohol was listed as the primary cause in about 7.4% of powerboat accidents, and about 4% of sailboat accidents.
Assertion #4: Sailors are better looking.
By the way, though WA state has about 4.6% of the registered recreational vessels in the country, we have only about 2% of the accidents.
Be safe out there,