Jet Ski safety: UNSW studies impact of COVID-19 travel restrictions

Record sales of Jet Skis and personal watercraft amid international travel restrictions due to the coronavirus crisis has seen an increase in boat-related drownings in NSW – overtaking swimming deaths for the first time.  

For the first time since records were kept, more people in NSW drowned while boating or riding a Jet Ski than died while swimming.

The revelation comes as more people took up recreational boating amid beach closures and international travel restrictions last year due to the coronavirus crisis.

However, there are still significantly fewer fatalities among Jet Ski and personal watercraft riders compared to boaters – both as a raw number and when deaths are measured against the ratio of licence holders.

A landmark study by the University of NSW in Sydney – working with Surf Life Saving Australia – compared fatality rates of boaters, Jet Ski and personal watercraft users, and swimmers over the past 15 years.

Above: NSW Police on patrol on a personal watercraft. Source: Marine Area Command Instagram page.

The study was titled When Natural Hazards Intersect with Public Health: A Preliminary Exploration of the Impact of Bushfires and the COVID-19 Pandemic on Australian Coastal Drowning Fatalities. A link to the full report can be found here.

Between July 2019 and June 2020, authorities in NSW reported 31 boat drowning deaths and three fatalities involving riders of Jet Skis or personal watercraft – compared to 25 swimming deaths over the same period.

While there were sharp increases in boating tragedies in the 2019-2020 financial year compared to pre-COVID annual averages over the previous 15 years, there were fewer swimming deaths than the historical average.

Above: NSW Police get ready to head out on patrol on personal watercraft. Source: NSW Police Facebook page.

Pre-COVID (from 2004 to 2019) authorities in NSW reported an average of 23 boating deaths per year, one Jet Ski or personal watercraft related death per year – and 33 swimming deaths per year.

The figures show the number of boating deaths in NSW increased by 35 per cent and Jet Ski fatalities have tripled since the outbreak of COVID-19.

By comparison, the number of swimming deaths in NSW declined by 24 per cent (from the 15-year annual average of 33 deaths to 25 fatalities in the 2019-2020 financial year). 

Above: NSW Police conduct routine safety checks of personal watercraft riders. Source: NSW Police Facebook page.

Deaths of people while rock fishing in NSW also increased during the 2019-2020 financial year (18 fatalities versus an average of 12 annually over the previous 15 years), and snorkelling and diving deaths also increased (14 fatalities versus an average of 12 annually over the previous 15 years). 

One of the lead researchers in the study is Dr Amy Peden, Lecturer in the School of Population Health at UNSW Sydney.

Dr Peden said while it was difficult to directly link the coronavirus crisis and a subsequent increase in deaths of boaters and Jet Ski riders, there is an assumption the increase in watercraft sales was a factor.

Above: NSW Police conduct routine safety checks of personal watercraft riders. Source: NSW Police Facebook page.

In the study, Dr Peden said: “Our results suggest that Australians modified their activities and use of coastal areas, which may have placed them at greater risk. For example, despite many jurisdictions having restrictions in place, boat sales were reported to have increased with many suppliers depleting their stock.”

The report noted maritime agencies responsible for vessel registrations, permits, and licenses had reported “substantial increases in boat sales and boat registrations.”

“This may lead to more people with lower levels of experience heading out on to the water,” Dr Peden noted, to avoid smoke during the period of severe bushfires – or to take up boating as a recreation due to border closures and international travel restrictions during COVID-19.

Above: NSW Police patrol on a personal watercraft and a rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB). Source: Marine Area Command Instagram page.

“It’s the first time since our study began in 2004 that boating and personal watercraft use was the leading cause of drowning,” Dr Peden told Watercraft Zone. “Historically, swimming is the leading cause of drowning.”

“Did beach closures reduce the number of swimming drownings, and did the increase in boat sales see more inexperienced people on the water?” asked Dr Peden.

“We’ve seen the data on the increase in (watercraft) sales, we’re assuming many buyers are new boaters or new Jet Ski users,” said Dr Peden.

“It could be people buying another boat and they’re very experienced, but I would think there is some element of inexperience that could be investigated further.”

Above: NSW Police patrol the waterways during a recent safety campaign. Source: Marine Area Command Instagram page.

Dr Peden said the purpose of the study was to find better ways to help prevent deaths in our waterways in the future.

“If inexperience is a factor then education is important,” said Dr Peden. “Especially in regards to the importance of checking weather and conditions, knowing how to use the vessel, and making sure people wear life jackets.”

The UNSW and Surf Life Saving Australia report was released as research by Watercraft Zone – published here in June 2021 – showed that, contrary to perception, boaters were at a greater risk of death than riders of Jet Skis and personal watercraft.

There was outrage in the Jet Ski community in February 2021 after a NSW government official told a TV news conference in relation to a weekend crackdown targeting Jet Ski riders: “We’ve seen a dozen people lose their lives over the last 12 months on the state’s waters.”

Although the NSW Minister for Transport, Andrew Constance (pictured above on a Channel Nine TV news bulletin), did not say there were 12 Jet Ski-related deaths, the imputation was that the fatalities involved Jet Skis and personal watercraft.

Despite boat-related deaths far exceeding those that involved Jet Ski riders, government officials told TV media during the press conference: “This weekend we need everyone to cool their jets.”

Above: A screenshot from a Channel Nine TV news bulletin about a crackdown on Jet Skis in February 2021.

Data supplied by NSW authorities to Watercraft Zone found there had been five deaths related to Jet Skis and personal watercraft over the past five years, versus 54 boating fatalities over the same period.

A spokesman for the Boating Industry Association, Neil Patchett, told Watercraft Zone at the time that inaccurate or exagerrated data “shouldn’t be used as a trigger (to target) a particular type of watercraft.”

To recap, read the full story here.

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