A study in the US has found that there are more deaths from sailing than downhill skiing and that alcohol is a critical factor in many sailing fatalities

A new study from Rhode Island Hospital researchers based on data from the US Coast Guard found that sailing has a higher fatality rate than American football and downhill skiing. Sailors experience fatalities at a higher rate than that of sports known for high speeds, falls and collisions. In fact, falling overboard, high winds and operator inattention are known factors lifting American sailing death rates, with alcohol implicated in 15 percent of all sailing deaths.

‘Drowning was the most common cause of death and, sadly, 82 per cent of drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket,’ said Andrew Nathanson, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at Rhode Island Hospital and clinical professor of emergency medicine at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University. ‘Death and injury can be prevented when skippers and passengers wear life jackets, abstain from alcohol while boating, and maintain proper vigilance.’

The vast majority of the sailing-related deaths during 2000 and 2011 occurred when boaters fell into the water. Alcohol intoxication was the leading preventable factor contributing to death, followed by operator inexperience and inattention. Together, operator-preventable contributing factors were associated with 37 per cent of all fatalities.

Heavy weather sailing

Weather or hazardous waters were listed as primary contributing factors in 28 per cent of deaths.

‘Neither experienced nor novice boaters were spared from injuries and death,’ said Nathanson. ‘The boating accident reports chronicled mishaps from day sailing on a small boat on a lake, to cruising a catamaran along the coast, to racing competitively in a regatta. For the eight million people who go sailing at least once a year in the United States, the risks must be understood.’

By law, all boating deaths, disappearances, significant injuries and major vessel damage must be reported to authorities. The Coast Guard maintains a database of the reports, and the researchers analyzed the 4,180 reports detailing 271 fatalities and 841 injuries. They estimated the fatality rate at 1.19 deaths per million sailing person-days. Comparatively, the fatality rates for alpine skiing and snowboarding are 1.06 per million skier/snowboarder person-days. During the 11-year study period, 271 deaths were related to sailing versus the 197 incidents of American football players who died during play or practice.

Sailing skills rescue SAR helicopter

Nathanson’s study was published recently in the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, a peer-reviewed international journal devoted to original scientific contributions on medicine defined by isolation, extreme natural environments, and limited access to medical help and equipment.

Founded in 1863, Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, R.I., is a private, not-for-profit hospital and is the principal teaching hospital of the Alpert Medical School of Brown University.