According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the boating season of 2021 was the deadliest on record since 2005 – and the year is not over. Seventeen people have lost their lives in boating-related drownings and crashes so far this year. And with the cold water season coming on, there’s a chance that the total could climb even higher.

“Any life lost on the water is one too many, and we hope we’ve seen the last of these terrible tragedies,” said Lisa Dugan, DNR recreation safety outreach coordinator, in a recent DNR press release. “Too many families have had their lives immeasurably altered while their loved ones were taking part in what should be a fun and memorable activity.”

Of the 17 fatalities, 16 were not known to be wearing life jackets when they went into the water. Some fell unexpectedly into the water, others jumped in and experienced some sort of trouble that prevented them from getting back to their boat. 

Below is a list of the fatalities and their locations that occurred this boating season according to a statewide summary by the DNR:

April 14 on Mille Lacs Lake: A 35-year-old Garrison man drowned after falling overboard when his motorboat flooded with water. He and three passengers had gone out to do some fish netting. After about 20 minutes, they decided to turn around and go back to shore because the water was getting too choppy. Waves came over the boat causing the front to dip, putting the four men into the water. One passenger held a life jacket and swam toward shore, and two were able to climb back into the boat (one was wearing an inflatable PFD). The operator was found unresponsive in the water and was taken to shore by another boat. Lifesaving measures were started, and he was transported to the hospital where he was pronounced deceased. The victim was not wearing a life jacket.

April 30 on Leech Lake: A 68-year-old Pierz man drowned after falling overboard from his motorboat. He had noticed water in the back of the boat and thought he had a leaking drain plug. He grabbed another plug, lifted the motor and leaned over the transom to replace the faulty plug. His passenger heard him fall in and threw him a life jacket and a throwable flotation device and then tried to move the boat to rescue him. The man was under water, and the passenger jumped in and held the man’s head above water. Others arrived and helped them to shore where CPR was started with no success. The victim was not wearing a life jacket.

May 17 at Weaver Bottoms, Mississippi River: An 88-year-old Cochrane, Wisconsin man drowned after falling overboard from his motorboat. He had been out fishing by himself since late morning. A fisherman saw the unoccupied boat driving in circles and called authorities, and his body was recovered. The victim was not wearing a life jacket.

May 29 at Crystal Lake in Dakota County: A 36-year-old Burnsville man drowned while attempting to save his girlfriend who had gone into the water from the motorboat she was a passenger on. He jumped in the water from the boat in an attempt to help her get back to the boat. She was able to get back in the boat, but he told her he thought he was going to drown. She put on a life jacket and threw one toward him. He went under the water and she couldn’t see him. She jumped in the water, but couldn’t locate him. She called 911. His body was recovered about six hours later. The victim was not wearing a life jacket.

May 31 at Trout Lake in St. Louis County: A 51-year-old Bowlus man drowned after falling overboard from the motorboat in which he was a passenger. He and the other two occupants were fishing while slowly trolling. The man was in a seat on the raised casting deck and the operator noticed he was dozing off. They were still trolling when suddenly the operator heard a splash. He looked over and saw the man had fallen in. The man briefly came to the surface and then went under. The operator jumped in to help him but couldn’t hold him up without going under himself and he had to let go. Another boat came over to help and they got the man to shore and started CPR. Lifesaving efforts were unsuccessful. The victim was not wearing a life jacket.

June 1 at Lake Gervais in Ramsey County: A 20-year-old St. Paul man drowned when the canoe he and two others were in capsized. All three went into the lake, but only two resurfaced. None of the three were wearing a life jacket. 

June 6 at Big Kandiyohi Lake: A 32-year-old Danube man drowned while swimming from an unanchored motorboat. The boat was stopped to let the man and three children swim. No one was wearing a life jacket in the water. It was windy and wavy, and the boat was drifting. One child began to struggle and the man tried to help. He began to struggle and went under the water before the boat could reach him. The child was saved from the water. The man’s body was later recovered. 

June 11 at Big Sandy Lake: A 34-year-old North Branch man died after he fell overboard from a pontoon, which was underway. He was a passenger and was on the front of the boat when he fell. He went under the boat and was possibly struck by the motor. His body was later recovered. The victim was not wearing a life jacket.

June 24 at Little Splithand Lake in Itasca County: A 30-year-old Grand Rapids man drowned after falling overboard from the side-door on his pontoon with no life jacket. A female on the boat jumped in the water to save him but was unable to locate him. The man’s body was later recovered. 

June 30 at Lake Minnetonka: A 15-year-old Chanhassen boy wearing a life jacket died after a personal watercraft (PWC) collided with the PWC he was operating. The operators were friends that were out riding and jumping wakes. The victim’s PWC stopped suddenly and was hit by the one his friend was operating.

July 12 at Little Mantrap Lake in Hubbard County: A 65-year-old Brooklyn Park man not wearing a lifejacket drowned after falling overboard from his motorboat. Witnesses said they heard a boat speed past their boat while they were fishing. They then heard a loud bang and looked up to see a boat driving in circles and a man in the water. They went over to help and threw a life jacket to the man, but he wasn’t able to grab it and he went under. One witness tried to dive for the man but couldn’t find him. His body was later recovered.

July 19 at Loon Lake in St. Louis County: A 73-year-old Fort Lupton, Colorado man drowned after the canoe he was paddling capsized in the BWCA. He and his passenger were camping when they were advised of park closures due to wildfire activity in the area. They packed up camp and as they were paddling toward another lake, a storm came up. They turned toward shore and a large wave capsized the canoe. The passenger swam toward shore and the man held on to the canoe. When the passenger reached shore, he could not see the man anywhere. The man’s body was later recovered. No life jacket was worn.

Aug. 10 at Waukenabo Lake in Aitkin County: A 63-year-old Lakewood, Colorado man drowned after he jumped from an unanchored pontoon boat to swim. He started to struggle in the water and life jackets were thrown to him but missed. He went under the water and did not resurface. His body was later recovered with no life jacket worn.

Aug. 12 at Sand Lake in St. Louis County: A 21-year-old Roseville man drowned while trying to swim to shore from a capsized canoe. No life jacket was worn. 

Aug. 16 at Ruth Lake in Crow Wing County: A 66-year-old Towanda, Kansas man drowned after diving off the drifting pontoon boat he was a passenger on. The man was hanging onto the side of the pontoon but couldn’t continue. The operator threw several life jackets to him. Another boater heard calls for help and got the man in their boat and back to the public access. First responders rendered aid, but the man was pronounced dead at the scene. No life jacket was worn.

Aug. 19 at Leech Lake: A 65-year-old Oak Grove man drowned after going in the water from his drifting pontoon. A witness in another boat saw him in the water with his dog as they went by. When they came by again, they saw the dog swimming away from the boat and the man was nowhere to be seen. The man’s body was later recovered with no life jacket.

Aug. 20 at White Bear Lake: A 43-year-old Brooklyn Park man drowned while swimming from a rented pontoon. He was a passenger on the drifting boat and was in the water swimming. He became distressed and went underwater. His body was recovered with no life jacket.

Looking forward

These events happened only through the end of August, and there is still a lot of the open water season left to go. The DNR recommends people always wear a life jacket when they’re on the water, but it’s especially important during the cold-water season, when cold water can incapacitate even the strongest swimmers in a matter of minutes.

While air temperatures have been above normal for much of the fall, the water temperature is now finally beginning to cool and has dropped well below 70 degrees, which is the threshold for DNR classifying water as cold. Mille Lacs is currently in the upper 50s. The DNR also said about 30% of boating-related fatalities happen during the cold-water periods of spring and fall.

In the fall, anglers and hunters are the primary people on the water, as recreational traffic generally stems off after Labor Day. 

The following are other safety reminders the DNR suggests for the cold water periods of spring and fall:

Wear a life jacket (foam life jackets are more effective than inflatable life jackets during the cold-water season).

Distribute weight in the boat evenly and abide by manufacturer’s weight limits to reduce the likelihood of falling overboard.

Have a means of communication. Boaters also should let other people know where they’re going and when they plan to return.

Watch the weather to avoid shifting winds or storms.

Wear an engine cut-off device if the boat is equipped with one.

For more information on staying safe on or around cold water, see the DNR’s cold water webpage.

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