Most summer nights, waterfronts along the Massachusetts coast are abuzz long after the sun goes down. Clusters of fishermen push off the docks in search of stripers and bluefish, while the final round of ferries shuttles passengers across the bay. On clear nights, the coastline might be dotted with fireworks, their bursts of light mingling with the stars. Motorboats and small dinghies whir through the water, filled with post-dinner revelers hoping to catch a glimpse and end the evening in high spirits.
But the many delights of night boating carry risks, harbormasters, and safety specialists say, citing a fatal crash in Boston Harbor shortly after 3 a.m. on July 17 as a tragic example. A 27-year-old woman drowned when a center console boat struck a navigational marker off a foggy Castle Island and capsized, throwing her and seven others into the water.
Investigators are working to determine what caused the crash, but its overnight timing called attention to the hazards of riding and operating watercraft in the dark. Those dangers include inclement weather and technical problems and are magnified by inexperienced, careless, or intoxicated boaters.
“Inexperience operating in the dark” is the primary cause of accidents in Nantucket waters, according to harbormaster Sheila Lucey.
About half the people she sees on the water after sundown are new boaters, and many are “a bit naive to how difficult it can be to operate at night,” she said.
The National Marine Manufacturers Association reports the number of new boaters is up again this year, continuing a pandemic-era surge that saw new powerboat sales increase by 12 percent last year.
“You would be hard-pressed to find an available mooring or slip at any marina,” said Marshfield harbormaster Michael DiMeo. “People that ordered boats back in 2020, those boats are finally in the water. So there’s a lot of new boaters this year.”
Eight people died and 44 were injured in 75 boating accidents across the state last year, according to the US Coast Guard. Over a quarter of those accidents were caused by operator inexperience, which also accounted for nearly a third of injuries.
Nationally, the number of accidents increased 26 percent, while the number of injuries and deaths increased about 25 percent, according to the Coast Guard.
“There is evidence that boating activity rose significantly during the pandemic, from reports of increased boat sales, insurance policies taken out, insurance claims, and calls for towing assistance,” the Coast Guard wrote in an annual report.
With a sharp increase in accidents and the ranks of new boaters, specialists said Massachusetts and other states should require safety classes. Only 12 percent of deaths last year occurred on vessels where the operator was known to have received a nationally approved safety education certificate, according to the Coast Guard.
“Doesn’t matter whether you’re boating on the Great Lakes or in Alaska, . . . boating safety is good for everybody,” said Mike Anderson of the American Boating Association. “You get a much safer group of people on the water and it’s going to save lives. No question about it.”
In Massachusetts, a state-approved safety course is required for boaters aged 12-15 to operate a motorboat without adult supervision. But at least 27 other states have introduced a mandatory safety certification for adults to operate high-speed watercraft.
Contrary to general expectation, steering a boat is “much more difficult” than driving a car, harbormasters said.
“The land stays still, the water moves,” said Brian Taylor, the harbormaster in Barnstable. “There are different tide conditions, the weather affects the wind and the waves, so you’re moving, but underneath you is moving as well.”
The risk of accidents increases after dark, when captains are stripped of their best navigational tool: good eyesight.
“You’re relying on light on buoys, you’re relying on lighthouses, you’re relying on landmarks by light, whereas during the day you can see the land itself,” Lucey said.
Meanwhile, urban areas like Boston “have a lot of background lighting from the city landscape, and that can negatively impact people’s ability to distinguish the colors of different lights on a buoy, for instance,” said Chatham harbormaster Stuart Smith.
These risks are heightened by alcohol, the leading contributing factor in fatal boating incidents, according to the Massachusetts Environmental Police, which patrols the state’s inland and coastal waters. But charges for impaired boating appear to be rare. So far this year, the agency has recorded just one such arrest, compared to six the past two years. Those totals do not include arrests made by local authorities.
Spokesman Craig Gilvarg said a guilty verdict, which results in the revocation of a boat’s registration, is even less likely unless the case involves an additional offense such as injury or death.
Alcohol use accounted for 8 percent of all boating accidents last year but was responsible for a quarter of boating-related deaths in the state, the Coast Guard reported.
“It’s not okay to be out drinking beer all day on your boat and then come limping in after dark,” said Anderson. That risk extends to passengers as well, he said.
“You can be driving somebody home that’s in the back seat hammered, and they’re very unlikely to fall out of your car and get killed,” he said. “But you got somebody that’s sitting in the back of a high-speed boat and they fall out, there’s a lot of things that can happen.”
Lucey said that a major challenge in Nantucket are motorized dinghies, inflatable 8-foot boats that are rarely equipped with the appropriate lighting.
“A bunch of people that have been on shore and might’ve had a drink or two at the restaurant . . . get into these little dinghies. They’re zipping around, you can’t see them, and that’s very dangerous,” she said.
Although often employed directly by police departments, many harbormasters straddle the line between enforcement and education, often preferring to instruct than arrest.
“Nine out of 10 situations, you want to educate people who don’t realize that they were doing something wrong or incorrect,” DiMeo said. “The people that tend to get arrested or charged are the ones that are drawing attention to themselves, driving in an erratic or unsafe manner.”
However, DiMeo said it would be easier to enforce the “rules of the road” if violations were tied to clearer consequences.
“If you’re driving a vessel, you should at least be mandated to have a license,” DiMeo said. “It just makes you more accountable for your actions.”