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Boating popularity in Mississippi has good and bad side

The sun is hot and the days long. Time to throw the cover off the boat, hook up the trailer or strap the canoe down and head out for the state’s waterways.

The popularity of boating, not only in Mississippi but throughout the U.S., has seen exponential growth since the 1980s. According to the U.S. Coast Guard sales of personal watercraft in the U.S. were 29,000 units in 1987, compared to 191,000 in 1997. Over that same period of time the number of personal watercraft in use grew from 92,756 to an amazing 900,000 in 1997.

In a market overview written by the National Marine Manufacturers Association Inc., the organization pointed to several factors for the explosion in watercraft ownership. Wealth creation, a robust stock market and entrepreneurs taking money and time from their businesses were cited. It also reported the availability of favorable financing and low fuel costs, as well as the repeal of the luxury tax in 1993 as strong reasons.

“Business has been real strong,” said Allen Bankston, assistant manager of Indian Cycle Fitness & Outdoor, which sells canoes and kayaks. “Our outdoor department has seen steady, strong growth for the last four years in a row.”


Enthusiasm for boating has been somewhat dampened this year by a shocking rise in boating fatalities in Mississippi. Already the state has seen 16 deaths in 1999. Unfortunately, this is a national trend, with many pointing to the sheer number of watercraft in use for the increase. According to the Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks, most accidents occur in small, open boats on inland waterways on weekends during the summer.

“We have more boats than water,” said Officer Freddie Overby during a boating safety course conducted in Jackson. “Something has to give.”

Statistics seem to bear this out. According to the Coast Guard, the number of accidents reported by operators of personal watercraft skyrocketed in the U.S. from 376 mishaps in 1987 to 4,099 in 1997. These accidents were responsible for 819 fatalities. And deaths in personal watercraft hit a record high in 1997 with 84 fatalities.

Ron Jones, general manager of the Mississippi Business Journal, doesn’t need to see the statistics. Recently Jones traded in his 19’ runabout for a 27’ cabin cruiser which is moored at the Ross Barnett Reservoir. And no body of water has been harder hit by tragedy than the Reservoir which has already seen three deaths this year.

“It’s just crowded out there,” Jones said. “You’ve got jet skis going way too fast and other folks in slow pontoon boats. I’m just amazed at how many people are out there who are cutting up, drinking heavily, or just don’t seem to know how to operate their boat.”

Jones, who has been a boater for over 30 years, said of all the factors he has seen, alcohol consumption is the number one culprit. There were 32 more alcohol-related fatalities in 1997 over the previous year.

“I like to have a good time, too, but I don’t understand these people who go out and get falling-down drunk,” he said. “When I’m out there, I’m thinking, ‘Man, I still have to get this thing back in the slip.’ I’ve seen a lot of people doing foolish things out on the water, and a lot of the time they have a beer in their hand. It’s suicide.”

Jones just completed a safe boating course put on under the auspices of the Mississippi Wildlife Fisheries and Parks. Though he didn’t know it when he signed up, successful completion of the course will mean a 10% cut in his boat insurance.

There are other ways to reduce premiums as well. Insurance companies offer discounts for such things as completion of a personal watercraft safety certification test, being a member of a boating association or marina, if the boat has a diesel engine, protective devices, is less than 11 years old and/or other inducements.


The danger is not just in powered craft but canoes and kayaks, too. There were 46 more deaths in 1998 in canoes and kayaks over 1997. At Indian Cycle Fitness & Outdoor in Ridgeland, safety is stressed.

“We have people all the time who say they’re experienced paddlers, then we get them on the water and they do everything wrong,” said Bill Wright of the outdoor department. “For instance, when you’re out on whitewater, sometimes you can’t hear over the rush of the water. So there are paddle signals, communication by using the paddle to signal ‘stop’ or ‘right’ and ‘left.’ It can save a life.”

And Wright echoed Jones’ concerns about alcohol.

“The first thing a lot of people do when they get there is unload their cooler or two — or three — of beer, whether it’s a dry county or not,” Wright said. “And then…” Wright just shook his head and shrugged.

Jones said that, though he is an experienced boater, there were many things he learned during the course. “I recommend it highly. It should be required,” Jones said.

Courses offered under the auspices of the Wildlife Fisheries and Parks are free and offered all over the state. For more information, call (601) 364-2184.


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