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What Are the Most Common Causes of Boat Accidents? (Top 10)

Fact checked by William Hart

what are the most common causes of boat accidents?

Just like on the road, accidents happen on the water, except that they are more severe and dangerous as victims might die from drowning. In 2020, the recorded 5,000 boating accidents resulted in approximately 700 deaths, which means at least two people pass away each day.

What are the most common causes of boat accidents? Operator inattention, speed, operator inexperience, improper lookout, and machinery failure are the top five contributing factors to non-fatal cases. However, alcohol use is the main cause of fatal boating accidents, bringing about 18% of deaths.

Table of Contents

Top Ten Causes of Boating Accidents

Common types of boating accidents include collisions, swamping, grounding (running aground), and falling overboard. The most deadly is vessel crashes.

So, what causes the most boat collisions? Do operating errors or natural causes lead to running aground? According to the U.S. Coast Guard, there are ten contributing factors to accidents on the water. Let’s examine each one and see what preventative measures you can take.

1. Operator inattention


You might become distracted when traveling on an empty water body since there is not much to observe. But be careful! Sea curves can fool your eyes. You might see no obstacles, and after just a moment of neglect, a cargo ship appears.

Most boating accidents occur when vessel operators fail to stay alert. You might be surprised to know that the majority of mishaps happen during daylight hours of calm and clear days.

Operator inattention is the primary cause of many boating accidents. It ranks number one out of the ten factors, causing roughly 700 accidents and 50 deaths.

It also contributes to the rising death rates in sailing accidents. The list of unwanted incidents in sailing consists of operator errors, high winds, and falling overboard. Thus, stay focused and vigilant at all times.

2. Operator inexperience

Operating a boat is more complicated than driving a car. Besides controlling the vehicle, you have to estimate the wind impact, ride the waves, interpret the nautical chart, understand the marine signals and lights, and anticipate water obstructions.

Operators not only need to be aware of marine rules, but they must also act quickly and precisely in an emergency. As such, inexperienced boaters pose a higher risk of accidents. In fact, the number of deaths caused by this factor is equal to that of operator inattention – 55 people.

Nevertheless, don’t be discouraged from practicing regularly and enjoying your first time operating a vessel. At the end of the day, boating is fun and enjoyable. Go at a low speed, pay attention, and stay alert, and you will get used to it in no time. Plus, most experienced boaters are willing to give way to new ones.

3. Improper lookout


When operating, you must maintain a proper lookout. Many factors can interrupt your boats, such as kayakers, water skiers, buoys, submerged threats, sandy bars, and shallow waters. Most of them are difficult to spot.

Ideally, you should have one person on board helping you watch out for any dangers, buoys, and lighting signals. He or she might use a pair of binoculars if needed. This person should be experienced in boating.

Conditions on the water are unpredictable, so handle the boat as your priority and let someone else take charge of looking out.

4. Excessive speed


Speeding is the cause of many car accidents. It contributed to 29% of all motor vehicle traffic fatalities in 2020. While speeding across the water is fun and can shorten the time to reach your destination, its consequences might be irreparable.

Always maintain a safe speed to avoid motorboat accidents. Remember that container ships take up to ten minutes to brake, and it is your duty to stay out of their way. Plus, intense boating disasters are more likely to occur when vessels navigate at high speed.

5. Machinery failure

The Coast Guard declares that bad boating accidents often occur because of machinery failure during nighttime. Imagine your boat’s batteries suddenly malfunctioning, which shuts down the lights and prevents the engine from starting, then you are stranded and invisible in the darkness.

Appropriate boat maintenance is crucial for safety. Examine your boat engines, replace the oil and filter, refill the batteries, and regularly inspect the fuel and electrical lines.

Also, simple situations like running out of gas might lead you straight into trouble (think if it happens while you are navigating a shipping lane.) Try to plan the distance you will travel, calculate how much gasoline you need, and add a generous amount on top.

In addition, equipment failure such as faulty batteries, impaired fuel lines, and blocked cooling systems can all lead to serious fire hazards. So, make sure you have fire extinguishers rated for use with electrical lines on board.

6. Navigation rules violation


The USCG uses a system of navigational aids to publish the rules on the water. Every boater must understand this system and obey what the aids indicate.

While violating the rules of navigation might cut you some time, it is extremely dangerous. Take idle speed buoys as an example. They are located in shallow waters, swimming zones, or rocky bottom areas. If you ignore them and maintain your regular speed, you might run aground, or even worse, hit swimmers.

7. Alcohol use


As you shouldn’t drink and drive a motor vehicle, you shouldn’t do so when operating a boat. Alcohol intoxication causes the most severe accidents; it is the primary cause of boating fatalities.

In detail, alcohol use only accounted for 7.5% of crashes, but it causes 25.6% of total deaths. It is also the leading cause of fatal boating accidents in Florida.

Understand that when you take the helm, you are responsible for yourself, your passengers, and other vessels around you.

8. Weather

In the booklet A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats, the USCG suggests that bad weather tends to bring the most challenging situations for boaters.

In a matter of minutes, fog and heavy rain can significantly reduce the visibility on the water, leaving you stranded, confused, and unclear about what surrounds your vessel.

Offshore weather is so unpredictable that the forecasts might fail to provide precise information from time to time. Heed these signs to know whether it is turning unpleasant:

  • The clouds become flat and thicker and start to move downward.
  • Dark and threatening clouds appear to the West or South West.
  • The temperature suddenly drops.
  • The sun or moon appears to have a halo around it.
  • The wind increases its speed or changes its direction.

If you get caught in severe weather, follow these steps to ensure safety:

  • Slow down so you can anticipate what might be around and take preventive measures
  • Put on a life jacket and make sure everybody else on board does the same
  • Turn on the running lights
  • Constantly check to keep your bilge free of water
  • Seat passengers on the boat’s bottom and near the centerline to prevent falling overboard
  • Anchor the boat if necessary

9. Hazardous water


Ranking number nine is hazardous to water. It might be a shallow water body, a dam, submerged objects, or strong currents. You should keep an eye on the nautical chart for buoys and aids signifying these areas.

Shallow waters can cause running aground, which happens when a boat is stranded because the water is not deep enough to keep it afloat. In 2020, almost 500 running aground accidents occurred, resulting in 14 deaths.

10. The force of waves or wake

Last but not least, the force of waves can cause vessels to flood, swamp, or capsize. If your 15-foot pontoon is caught in a container ship’s wake, it will definitely swamp. Thus, stay cautious when passing designated shipping lanes and cargo landing areas.

Breaking waves as high as a boat’s beam can capsize it. Also, make sure to approach large waves at a 45-degree angle.


We provided ten factors to answer the question, “What are the most common causes of boat accidents?” However, boaters should not fear sudden weather changes or technical failures most, up to 80% of the mishaps are from human operating errors.

More than that, many fatalities are not caused by the accidents themselves. 90% of the victims were not wearing a PFD when the accidents happened, thus passing away because they drowned after falling overboard.

If you find our article helpful, share it with your friends and relatives. Everyone can use pieces of safety advice on the water. Thank you for reading, and we hope to see you again soon!

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