Ridetheducksofseattle is reader-supported. When you buy through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

What is the Major Cause of Fatalities Involving Small Boats?

Written by Anthony Roberts / Fact checked by Jonathan Larson

what is the major cause of fatalities involving small boats

During the pandemic, the boating industry witnessed a rocketed increase in ownership of recreational boats, followed by a rise in boating accidents by 25% compared with 2019.

So, which is the major cause of fatalities involving small boats? To our knowledge, it’s caused by drowning from falling overboard, boat capsizing, and collisions.

In today’s article, we have summed up some primary causes of fatalities and how to prevent them from happening. Stay tuned!


Leading Causes of Small Boat Fatalities

1. Falling Overboard


Falling overboard is the major cause of death in fatal boating accidents.

According to statistics, 36% of small boat fatalities are caused by falling overboard, mostly due to alcohol abuse – which also makes up for nearly 25% of going overboard deaths.

In addition, reckless behaviors from passengers and boat operators can cause someone to fall overboard. The passenger may be standing too close to the gunwale, or the boat operator may lack basic safety education.

Not to mention, a small boat has significantly less storage capacity than a bigger one, contributing to why 86% of people who drown don’t have a life jacket. As such, it is no surprise that 83% of small boat fatalities were due to drowning.

2. Collision


Accounting for 18% of deaths involving recreational vessels, collisions result from various factors, including:

  • Skipper’s inattention/inexperience
  • Poor weather conditions
  • Limited visibility, faulty engines
  • Excessive speed
  • Violation of navigation rules
  • Striking a submerged object
  • Failure to maintain a proper lookout

Above the causes listed above, the operator’s inattention/inexperience is the most responsible for collisions.

3. Capsizing


Since it’s easier to overload a modest-sized boat than a big one, small vessels are more prone to this type of boating emergency.

Sometimes, passengers would stand too close to the pedestal seats, causing the boat to lose balance and flip over. Other times, the passengers only stand on one side of the vessel, making the overall weight not evenly distributed.

When the vessel capsizes, one is likely to suffer grievous physical injuries and may even pass out and drown. So, it’s unsurprising that capsizing is responsible for 9% of mortality in recreational boats’ passengers.

4. Wake


Sometimes, the boat operator isn’t aware of the size of the waves incoming or the wakes their boat creates, causing the boat to capsize or go into collision. In addition, passengers standing too close to the gunwale will be caught off guard and may fall overboard.

Although large wakes/waves don’t cause as many deaths as drowning or capsizing, it’s estimated that they are to blame for roughly 4% of fatalities in small boats.

5. Grounding


Accounting for 3% of most fatalities in small boats, running aground not only causes harm to the passengers and skipper but also damages the vessel. This can result in flooding and, in the worst case, sink the boat entirely.

6. Other Causes

Making up 30% of fatalities involving small boats, these other causes include bad weather conditions, mechanical faults, stray electrical currents, interaction with dangerous/lethal marine life, and negligence.

For example, when you leave your engine unattended for some time without proper maintenance, there’s an increased risk of it catching fire. Unfortunately, not everyone knows how to deal with fire calmly or correctly.

Should you fail to put out the fire in time, you’re at risk of inhaling too much carbon monoxide, which can be deadly. And even if you jump into the water with a life jacket on, you’re likely to get hypothermia when submerged in the water for too long.

Why Small Boat Accidents Are Fatal?


Statistics on Small Boat Accidents

  • Over 80% of boating fatalities involve small vessels.
  • In 2023, 86% of drowning victims were not wearing a PDF.
  • 18% of fatal boating accidents are due to alcohol.
  • 77% of boating deaths are due to lack of boating safety.

What Should You Do to Reduce the Risk?

Here are some tips to prevent accidents involving small boats from occurring:

  • Three-point-of-contact Rule: Avoid moving around the boat too much; if you must do so, follow the three-point-of-contact rule. This means you should always have either both hands and one foot or both feet and one hand to touch base with the vessel.
  • Weight Distribution: As mentioned, it’s very easy to overload a small vessel. Prevent falling overboard by evenly distributing the overall gross (including passengers and gears) to keep the boat centered at all times.
  • Low Center Of Gravity: It’s mandatory to keep your center of gravity low and centered in the boat. Additionally, your shoulders should be kept between the gunwales to maintain balance.


Which is the major cause of fatalities involving small boats? To summarize, it’s mostly due to drowning from falling overboard or collision.

To avoid such unfortunate situations from happening, make sure to always wear a life jacket when you’re onboard. As for the boat operator, one must get proficient boating safety education, ensuring proper handling of emergencies.

Rate this post