Alcohol and not wearing life jackets are a deadly combination for CT riders in 2021

On a warm, slightly overcast Sunday, last August 8, boaters near a Salmon River boat at the Connecticut River departure in East Haddam noticed a personal watercraft drifting without a passenger.

Less than an hour later, state environmental police found the body of a man floating nearby in a restricted area. Stephen Fabian, 59, fell from Moodus, and drowned. State environmental officials said the life jacket was ill-fitting and slipped around his head, and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) stated that his blood alcohol level was well above the legal limit for poisoning.

“The way he died was tragic,” said his best friend, Dana Bates of Westbrook. “He brought it upon himself.” His family reports that Fabian, a licensed former practical nurse, once rescued a boat after a crash in the Connecticut River and performed CPR until medical staff arrived.

As a boat accident, Fabian’s accident was as typical as it was sad. The vast majority of boat accidents in the United States occur because people fail to pay attention, wear life jackets, or use materials, said Walt Taylor, a recreational boat safety specialist with the US Coast Guard in Boston.

On Sunday, one person was killed and seven others, including at least two children, were injured when their boat crashed in the Connecticut River in Portland. The circumstances of the accident were not immediately known as DEEP and other agencies continued to investigate on Monday.

In 2021, the Coast Guard reported 43 boating accidents and seven deaths in Connecticut. In 2020, there were more boating accidents in Connecticut — 54 — but fewer deaths, three, according to the Coast Guard’s annual recreational boating statistics report.

Although these numbers are small, what is surprising about the deaths is that they could all have been avoided. Taylor said he avoids naming unfortunate boating accidents, preferring the word “accidents,” because they are often the result of choices.

Five of the seven men who died in Connecticut waters in 2021 were not wearing life jackets, and a sixth, Fabian, was wearing an ill-fitting jacket. If they had worn proper life jackets — technically known as personal flotation devices or PFDs — they likely would have survived, Taylor said. The seventh died of severe shock.

As in Connecticut, nationally, boat accidents fell in 2021 to 4,439 from 5,265 in 2020. But unlike Connecticut, boat deaths nationwide also decreased from 2020 to 2021, from 767 to 658.

An estimated 80 percent of U.S. boat deaths last year were due to drowning after falling overboard, according to a Coast Guard report. Of those who drowned, 83% were not wearing life jackets. The report said alcohol use is the main contributing factor to boat accidents and the leading cause of 16% of accidents nationwide.

Boaters are legally poisoned with blood alcohol levels of 0.08 percent, or .02 percent for those under the age of 21. Connecticut law requires that people carry life jackets on board and that children under 12 years old wear one while on deck. Everyone on a “hand-propelled” boat, such as a canoe or kayak, must wear a life jacket between October 1 and May 31.

Taylor admitted that the problem was that once the boat started capsizing, it was too late to grab and place the PFDs.

“No one is planning to get out on the boat and accidentally fall into the sea,” Taylor said. “It is the same rationale for not putting on a seat belt until the moment you need it. In case you find yourself in the water, it is too late.”

Fabian’s death and most other boating deaths in Connecticut last year are grim evidence of that statement. On April 10, a kayak capsized on Long Meadow Pond in Middlebury. The 26-year-old rower struggled and sank despite efforts by witnesses to find and rescue him. His body was found the next day. Officials said he was not wearing a life jacket and had marijuana in his bloodstream and a blood alcohol content of 0.012.

On May 8, Michael Lowell, 58, of Putnam, was fishing from a kayak in the Coenbaugh River in Pomfret. Two of his companions rowed other boats upstream, and when they returned, they were unable to find Lowell and reported him missing. Later, his capsized boat was found several miles downstream with his body floating 198 yards from him, DEEP reported. Officials determined that he drowned. He was not wearing a life jacket.

On June 8, Philip Bloen, 50, who had gone fishing in a motorboat the night before, was found dead after his family reported him missing. He was not wearing a life jacket, his blood alcohol level was 0.180 and THC was detected in his bloodstream. Additionally, officials said he did not have a required safe sailing certificate, and that the trolling motor on the unregistered boat had fishing line wrapped around it.

Two men launched a canoe at Stamford and capsized near Woodway Beach Club on July 10. Four rescuers from the club rescued and attempted to revive Lorenzo Maqua, 63, of Norwalk, but he was pronounced dead at Stamford Hospital. The second boat, 50, has not been identified, but officials said it swam ashore and was unharmed. Neither of them was wearing a life jacket.

Akeda Edwards, 45, of New York City, ventured out in a kayak at night at Lake Wayasup in North Stonington on Sept. 25. It has been reported missing. Divers found his body late the next morning. DEEP said he drowned after falling off the boat and that alcohol and drugs were found in his system.

The only boat accident that did not sink in the past year occurred on July 27, when Matthew A. Horvath, a college football player who graduated from Chilton High School that spring, died of severe trauma. Officials did not reveal the identity of the other contestant, who was unharmed. DEEP officials said neither of them wore a life jacket and that speed may have contributed to the accident. DEEP spokesman Matt Healy said alcohol was detected in Horvath’s system.

“Anyone who operates a personal watercraft should understand that it is a motor vehicle, similar to a car but on the water,” Healy said. “Before boarding, operators must take safe boat courses and obtain a personal boat operation certificate. Life jackets must be worn at all times and maintained at safe speeds. Alcohol should never be consumed when entering or operating the water or when operating any type of vessels”.

Taylor said inattention is the fatal cause of most boat accidents in the United States. Even when they are sober, distraction is a big factor. He said that people pay a lot of attention to radar, fish detection, and their navigation devices. “A lot of times, people cling to these things to the point that they don’t look directly in front of them.”

This story was reported in partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team

a non-profit news organization dedicated to health reporting.

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