Experience alone won’t guarantee hunters and anglers safe passage on troubled waters, no matter how big your boat.

In fact, confidence can kill you.

Consider Ernest McSorley, who was 63 and commanded 10 ships during 40-plus years at sea and on the Great Lakes. And Edward John Smith, who was 62 and commanded ships for 27 of his 40 years at sea.

Both men were well-seasoned mariners who went down with their ships; Captain McSorley while commanding the SS Edmund Fitzgerald across Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975; and Captain Smith while commanding the RMS Titanic after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912.

Hunters and anglers might want to learn their stories before climbing into canoes, kayaks, bass boats, or duck boats.

If you look out from the landing and say, “I’ve seen worse” when assessing white caps or a churning river, pause and listen real hard. You might hear Smith and McSorley saying, “Yeah, that’s what we said.”

McSorley’s peers considered him a “rough-weather” captain who drove his ships through heavy seas to meet schedules. He hated wasting time, and thought he’d seen everything in his four decades as a mariner. Likewise, five years before dying on the Titanic, Smith reportedly said: “In all my experience … I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.”

Moral of the story: No matter your boat, ship, or experience, stay humble.

Conservation Warden Mike Neal, a 30-year veteran of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, has worked Lake Michigan the past 26 years. Neal regularly investigates drownings and boating accidents, and teaches courses around the country on boating fatalities and accident reconstruction for the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.

Neal said experience begets confidence, which often breeds complacency and even carelessness.

“It’s the old adage, ‘I’ve done this a million times,’ or ‘I’ve been on this lake my entire life and know what I’m doing,’” Neal said. “People become their own worst enemy. They’re complacent and don’t realize it. They no longer respect or recognize danger when seeing it.”

Accident data kept by the U.S. Coast Guard support Neal’s opinion. The USCG’s annual report, Recreational Boating Statistics recorded 613 boating-related fatalities in 2019. Of that total, 402 (66%) involved operators 36 or older. In the 320 cases where investigators documented the drivers’ experience level, 49 operators (15%) had less than 10 hours, and 183 (57%) had 101 or more hours.

Here are a few stories and anecdotes that will help you avoid such disaster on the water this season.

Squandering Options
Dave Mull of Paw Paw, Michigan is a longtime Great Lakes fisherman and fishing editor/communicator. The 63-year-old survived a sinking on July 3, 2012, on Lake Michigan off South Haven by clenching a cooler’s handles for 3½ hours to stay afloat. He spent much of those 210 minutes in the frigid water second-guessing risky decisions he made before things deteriorated.

“When shit hits the fan, it hits at lightning speed,” Mull said. “You can’t take risks while you still have options. I was no stranger to trolling the Great Lakes, and I knew accidents can happen to anyone, but I still got complacent about my own safety.”

Mull was in an 18-foot boat 5 miles offshore with two friends, one of whom brought his 10-year-old son. Mull said the lake’s 3-foot waves that day were “questionable but not dangerous,” and that he had fished in worse. They caught three salmon by 11 a.m., but then a wireline rig with a Dipsy Diver fouled two copper lines. One friend suggested hauling in the lines and untangling the mess when ashore, but Mull thought they could fix things while trolling.

Mull and his friend worked on the tangle from the boat’s stern. He weighed around 245 pounds and the friend, a former college football player, weighed nearly 400 pounds. Their weight wasn’t a problem until the lines wrapped around the propeller, forcing them to shut off the engine.

Mull said they should have instantly rigged a sea anchor, or drift bag, from the bow to turn into the waves, but they didn’t have one. Plus, he still underestimated the waves, and the boat’s transom lacked a splash well. When the first wave crested the transom, it came straight into the boat. They turned on the bilge pump and the father took his son to the bow, but other waves followed, each pouring in more water than the one before.

When the boat turned turtle, only the boy was wearing a lifejacket. Mull grabbed an inflatable lifejacket before leaping, and inflated it without putting it on. One friend grabbed a throwable life-cushion, and the other yanked a cooler free as the boat sank. The other personal flotation devices went to the bottom in a storage locker.

Mull pulled flares out of a floating case, and read how to activate them. They had exceeded their expiration date, however, and spit and sizzled skyward like pathetic bottle rockets. When Mull noticed his friend struggling to stay afloat with the cooler, he helped him into the lifejacket and grabbed the cooler.

Minutes later waves separated the group, sending Mull, his friend, and the father/son different directions. Fortunately, everyone was rescued 3½ to five hours later by other fishermen and the Coast Guard. Water temperatures were about 70 degrees, so only the boy suffered hypothermia.

Mull spent his time in the water “floating around, feeling stupid, reliving my mistakes, and thanking God for the Coleman cooler.” He said he should have:

  • Insisted everyone wear a lifejacket
  • Pulled in the fouled lines, as his friend suggested
  • Had a sea anchor ready to deploy
  • Known the flares were expired and replaced them
  • Known how to fire the flares without reading the directions
  • Worn a whistle around his neck
  • Installed a dash-mounted radio for making emergency calls.

Inadequate Lifejacket
Mike Kolbeck, 56, of Birchwood, Wisconsin, also survived to second-guess himself after getting rolled from a canoe July 16, 2010, while co-guiding a photography trip for six clients in the Quetico/Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Ontario. The accident occurred only 15 minutes into a scheduled nine-day trip.

“We put in on a bay of Nym Lake, and could see 1-foot waves farther out,” Kolbeck said. “We weren’t that concerned, but we wondered if we should wait. My guide partner felt hesitant, but the waves didn’t seem bad. At the time, I had 26 years of experience up there. We’d often paddled through waves like that, so we took off.”

The winds increased when the four canoes were about halfway across the bay and nearing two small islands. Kolbeck was in the stern, and his bow paddler was a 72-year-old man with a weak shoulder. They tried turning into the waves to go around the lee shore of one island, but failed.

They got caught broadside between the islands, which funneled the wind-driven waves into 3- to 4-foot rollers. When the third of three large waves broadsided Kolbeck’s canoe, both men tumbled out. When they surfaced, the canoe was upright with all their gear except one pack, but 10 feet away and separating fast.

Kolbeck’s partner bobbed safely in the waves, buoyed by a fully padded lifejacket. Kolbeck felt OK the first minute to 90 seconds in the water, which he figured was about 60 degrees, so hypothermia wasn’t an immediate threat. And he’s a trained first-responder, who understood the situation. “I knew it could happen to me at some point,” Kolbeck said. “I had no illusions about that.”

But when he turned over to try backstroking to the island 40 yards away, waves drove him below the surface, blasting water into his mouth and nostrils.

“It was bad,” Kolbeck said. “I panicked. I felt helpless. My lifejacket felt useless. It was mesh only across the shoulders, with no flotation from mid-chest to mid-shoulder blades. I kept getting tossed onto my sides like a rag doll. I passed out at some point, but out of the blue, two of our guys pulled me to their canoe and got me to shore. If they hadn’t seen us go in, I would have drowned.”

Kolbeck and his wife bought fully padded lifejackets after he finished the trip and returned home. He’s been more cautious since. “I’ll never go solo up there, like a lot of kayakers now do,” he said. “Too much can happen. My partner that day blamed himself because of his bad shoulder, but I don’t. I’d never before seen the wind pick up like that, and it lasted only about two minutes. We just got ourselves into the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Still, Kolbeck concedes confidence helped put him there. “I do wonder if I would’ve gone out that day if I had been a rookie,” he said. “I probably would have said, ‘Let’s put up our tents here in the parking lot and wait till morning.’”

Winter Beneath Ice
Dan Benish, 63, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, was in his 20s when he and three friends crossed paths with the corpse of Eddie Greenland, 58, while portaging around a rapids north of Thunder Bay, Ontario. It was late spring in the mid-1980s and they were five days into an eight-day canoe trip when they found Greenland face-down in quiet water near shore.

Greenland wore a flannel shirt and hip boots, and his wallet was visible in his back pocket. Benish’s group removed the wallet, zipped it into a sandwich baggie, and tied his belt to a tree so he couldn’t float away. “We thought it might be a crime scene, so we didn’t touch anything,” Benish said. “When we reported it to the constable in Armstrong three days later, they said, “Looks like they found Eddie.”

Greenland had disappeared the previous autumn. He had been a Detroit autoworker but moved with his wife years before to a lake downriver from where he died. He had gone into town for supplies the previous autumn, and vanished on his return trip. His wife flagged down a plane weeks later, and spent winter in town after searchers found only scattered supplies along the river where Greenland later surfaced.

Investigators think Greenland likely slipped or suffered a heart attack while lining his fully loaded boat down the rapids with a rope. His system had worked for years, until it didn’t.

Names, Faces and Numbers
The above cases give names and faces to data that basically repeats itself annually in USCG reports. Even though U.S. boating accidents fell 46% from 7,740 in 2000 to 4,168 in 2019, and injuries fell 41%, fatalities remain flat the past two decades, averaging 676.5 annually. The low was 560 fatalities in 2013, but deaths exceeded 700 eight times, peaking at 758 in 2011.

Anglers accounted for 198 (32%) of 2019’s 613 boating-related fatalities, exceeded only by boating/relaxation with 323 (53%) deaths. Only eight (1%) hunters died in boating accidents a year ago. Although most boating-related deaths occur May through September, death rates (per accident) exceed 20% only in months where anglers and hunters are the main people venturing out on cold waters: February (20%), March (21%) and November (25%).

Neal said hunters and anglers fall overboard when pulling up anchors or trolling motors, pull-starting old outboards, and bouncing out when striking submerged objects. The causes often can’t be determined, though, given that many people hunt or fish alone.

Most boating-related deaths are drownings, and most victims weren’t wearing lifejackets. Of 2019’s 613 boating fatalities, 419 (68%) were drownings; of which 362 (86%) weren’t wearing a PFD. Those percentages fluctuate little. In 2004, 484 of 676 boating fatalities were drownings and 90% weren’t wearing PFDs. And of 784 boating fatalities in 1994, 75% weren’t wearing PFDs.

In addition, of the 501 U.S. boating fatalities in 2019 where investigators established a primary cause,113 (23%) cited alcohol. Neal said alcohol is the primary or contributing cause for 65% to 80% of Wisconsin’s boating fatalities.

Even though PFDs are increasingly compact and convenient, most people in boats ignore them. “They’re relaxing, they’re vacationing, they’re drinking, and they’re just enjoying the day,” Neal said. “Their awareness of potential danger is down, so they feel like nothing can happen to them. I get all that, but it’s so easily preventable.”

What’s a Life Worth?
The same people, however, probably wore seatbelts when driving to the boat ramp, and would have instantly buckled up when returning home.

“I’ll ask them what their life is worth,” Neal said. “When they buy PFDs, are they a $9 or $189 person? Either way, they’re more likely to first spend $200 on a fishing rod. We also see lots of boats with no visible lifejackets. When they dig them out, they often don’t have enough for everyone. I’ll ask which friend or loved one they’ll write off if things go horribly sideways.”

No one answers that question confidently.