Each year in early March, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly DGIF) publishes its Boating Incident Report for the previous year. An “incident” qualifies for inclusion by involving more than $2,000 damage to a vessel or its equipment, at least one injury requiring more than basic first aid, one or more deaths or the disappearance of any person from a vessel.

With many people attempting to escape COVID-19 confinement and infection by traveling to, living and recreating here, it is generally believed that Smith Mountain Lake experienced more boat traffic in 2020 than in any past year. Indeed, Marina operators had a banner year and law enforcement reported holiday levels of boat traffic on many non-holiday weekends. This was also likely the case on most if not all Virginia waterways. 

Statewide, the number of incidents rose to 110 vs. 89 in 2019. The number of vessels involved totaled 137 and injuries were 51. There were 21 fatalities, and alcohol was a known factor in 10 percent of those fatal incidents — a significant decrease. Paddle craft (canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards) were involved in 52 percent of the fatal incidents — a significant and alarming increase. In 95 percent of the fatal incidents, the victim was not wearing a life jacket.

Compared to 2019, all Virginia reporting categories increased. Incidents were second highest in 10 years; injuries third highest in 10 years; fatalities tied for the most in 10 years; and property damage third highest in 10 years. Conversely, boat registrations were at the lowest level in 10 years — somewhat surprising given the boat-buying activity evident as the pandemic year evolved. 

The highest number of incidents and deaths occurred on the commonwealth’s rivers. The highest percentage of fatal incidents were during November, at 100 percent, and stood at 43 percent in April and 34 percent in October — all in cool or cold water. The highest number of incidents by location (18) was at Smith Mountain Lake. The primary incident types resulted from collision and capsizing. The highest contributing factor in incidents (43 percent) was improper operation of a vessel. The most common vessel involved in incidents was from 16’to 26’ in length. The most common age of the vessel operator involved tied at 36-45 and 56 and older. 

What are the takeaways from these statistics? First and foremost, wear your life jacket on a vessel, on the dock and in the water, especially children under 13. If you find yourself accidently in the water, your chances of survival decrease dramatically in cold water and without a PFD. Paddle craft are especially susceptible to capsizing and accounted for over half of last year’s fatalities. Wear your PFD and be prepared if you fall in the water.

So be safe. Wear your life jacket and post a lookout while underway. Unfortunately, we have already had a fatality at SML: In February, a boater fell overboard while launching, was not wearing a life jacket, and could not be revived. Make your boating season safe. Share and enjoy this great place we call Smith Mountain Lake.

Read more stories in the current issue of the Smith Mountain Eagle newspaper. Pick up a copy or subscribe at to view articles in the print and/or e-edition version.

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