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Recent boating death prompts state warning against ‘bow-riding’

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PHOENIX – With Labor Day weekend approaching, the death of a man who was struck by a propeller after falling off a boat has Arizona officials warning against a practice known as bow-riding.

The Aug. 17 accident on Roosevelt Lake was the third boating fatality this year attributed to bow-riding, said Kevin Bergersen, boating law administrator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Bow-riding involves sitting on or near the front of a boat, a position that leaves a person in danger of falling and being struck by the vessel’s bottom and propeller.

“Bow-riding is extremely dangerous because there’s nothing in those places that is going to keep an individual from falling over the bow of the boat,” Bergersen said.

“You have propeller injuries, deep-tissue injuries, decapitations, you name it,” he added.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 19 people died and 41 people were injured in 53 bow-riding incidents in 2012, which was up from nine deaths and 30 injuries in 36 incidents in 2011.

“We haven’t had this many bow-riding fatalities in a number of years,” Bergersen said, though he declined to speculate on reasons for the increase.

Bow-riding violates a state law against passengers riding on the bow above wakeless speeds, or 5 mph, Bergersen said. There are boats specifically designed to carry passengers on the bow, but riding there on boats not designed for it is where people get in trouble, he added.

Lt. Alan Nelson, boating supervisor for the La Paz County Sheriff’s Office, said that fatalities can still occur at wakeless speeds.

“Even at 5 mph or less, it would be very easy for a wake of another boat to cause that person to fall off,” Nelson said. “The operator of a boat isn’t going to be able to stop in time. The momentum of the boat is still going to carry it over a person.”

Bow-riding accidents occur because of a lack of awareness, said Rachel Johnson, communications director for the Bristow, Va.-based National Safe Boating Council.

Bars and handrails at the front of the boat mislead passengers into believing it’s safe to sit up there, she said.

“Bars around the front of the boat are just decorations,” Johnson said.

Nelson said he believes that “we could drastically reduce our accidents” if state law required boaters to take mandatory boating-instruction courses. Most of the boaters involved in accidents aren’t familiar with general safe practices and boating rules, such as the direction of traffic on lakes, he said.

Bergersen said that the violation carries a fine, the amount of which is determined by the seriousness of the violation.

“It’s arguably the most dangerous violation there is,” he said.

Bergersen also urged boaters not to operate a boat under the influence, to follow traffic patterns and to have enough safety equipment for all passengers on board over the holiday weekend.

“The consequences of conducting in that kind of unlawful operational behavior is extremely critical,” he said.