MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — South Carolina’s surge in boating sales last year also led to a correlation in crashes on state waterways, according to authorities.
“Last year, we did see an increase in fatalities, no doubt about it,” said Maj. Billy Downer with South Carolina Department of Natural Resources law enforcement. “So we’re hoping to see a decrease this year.”
The pandemic led to retailers running out of boats on their lots as restrictions lifted and more people took to the water last summer. Downer said the SCDNR continues to see high boating traffic this year — which is leading to a higher number of collisions.
“Any time you have an increase in boating traffic, you have an increase in accidents,” he said.
There were 142 boating crashes in 2018 on South Carolina waterways, according to data from the SCDNR. Of those, 28 were in Horry County, the highest in the state.
Data for 2019 and 2020 is currently not publicly available on the SCNDR’s website. News13 asked for the number of crashes for the last two years and was told the station had to file a Freedom of Information Act request in order to learn the data. As of Thursday afternoon, the SCDNR has not acknowledged that it received the request, which was submitted on Wednesday.
Downer said the main reason for crashes is failing to maintain a proper lookout. And if that driver is impaired, that reaction time is slowed even further.
The state focuses on boating safety every summer. Boating patrols keep an eye out for people who may be boating under the influence of alcohol, and SCDNR partners with the South Carolina Department of Public Safety for the 100 Deadliest Days campaign, which aims to reduce the number of fatalities on roads between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The SCDNR sends a specialized safety action task force to areas of high boat traffic specifically to look for people who are impaired from boating under the influence of alcohol, according to Downer. The crews will perform general safety stops on suspected drunken drivers and are trained to take a different approach to determine if a driver is intoxicated. That can be harder to find out, Downer said, when the crews can’t ask a boater to walk in a straight line due to choppy water.
Drinking alcohol and operating a boat alone isn’t an illegal act in South Carolina.
“Boating is different,” Downer said. “People on boats drink. They do that. They have alcohol, and it’s not against the law, but it is against the law to operate a boat under the influence.”
Alcohol has an even bigger impact on the water. Downer said that a combination of heat, loud engine noise and water turbulence can make a drink affect someone three times more powerfully than on dry land. Two beers quickly impair someone like six beers, a fact Downer said many people are unaware of.
There have been at least a handful of injuries this year in Horry County that occurred while a driver was accused of boating while under the influence of alcohol.
In April, 27-year-old John Kody Ray, of Surfside Beach, was charged with boating under the influence of alcohol leading to bodily damage or death, along with two counts of violation of navigation rules and regulations. Four people were taken to a hospital, and one died, after the boat, Ray is accused of driving crashed into a floating deck on the Intracoastal Waterway.
A month later, one person was charged with boating under the influence after a crash sent another person to a Myrtle Beach-area emergency room.
Downer urges boaters to maintain a slow speed and keep their distance from other boats. He recommends to have a designated driver on the boat if a group plans on drinking, and to make sure it’s someone who has operated a watercraft before.
As the summer continues, so will the SCDNR’s prevention and enforcement efforts.
“We don’t go out there to ruin somebody’s day, but to make sure our family and everyone else on the water is safe and can come home,” Downer said.
News13 reached out to the regional U.S. Coast Guard about its perpetual Operation Dry Water campaign and did not hear back before the time of publication.
Use the database below to search for boating crash information for South Carolina counties in 2018.