Oregon boating history includes Lewis and Clark escapades

According to archaeologists, boats in the form of a canoe have been on Oregon waterways for at least 6,000 years. They also add that they were used much like they are today, socially, at the center of family and tribal gatherings, as transportation, for commerce, and were foundational to the evolution of the hunter/gatherer cultures that are indigenous to the Pacific Northwest. Of the simplest design, they proved to be ideal to traverse a landscape dotted with natural lakes and great rivers that back then were teeming with salmon, steelhead and trout, and their banks were lush with other game. Also, let’s not forget that Lewis and Clark transversed the entire North American continent, finally arriving after a two-year arduous trip, at about where the city of Portland now sits, and accomplished the trip mostly by boat. Unfortunately, rather than stay in the milder upper end of the Willamette Valley, they chose to continue in what could be called one of history’s poorest boating decisions” to a wind-blown spit on the Washington side of what would become the Columbia River. A forsaken bit of sand they later named “Cape Disappointment.” It was a boating decision that nearly sacrificed their expedition, and almost cost them their lives.

In recent times dams constructed to generate hydro power and others built to manage flood waters, although not appreciated by everyone, have also added to the inventory of water bodies that Oregonians have come to enjoy. In a vast number of watercraft, from small inflatables that fit in your trunk to powerful, extremely seaworthy boats capable of carrying their captain and passengers far offshore. Let me add that with the growing popularity of tuna fishing along the Oregon coast, the Cuddy Class of fishing boats have exponentially grown in popularity as more anglers are drawn to the fast-paced sport of tuna. 

In Oregon all motorized boats, electric or fuel, regardless of the length, are required to carry an Oregon State Marine Boat hull registration. The requirements also apply to sailboats 12 feet or larger, but exempts a whole bunch of other boats, including drift boats (plus other kinds of rowboats), canoes, kayaks and whitewater rafts. With about 164,000 registered and titled watercraft in Oregon, we come in at No. 25 when compared to all the other states. But that leaves maybe an equal number of owners of human powered craft unaccounted for among the ranks of the boating public. Consequently, analysis of the entire range of boating mishaps in Oregon is mostly an anecdotal review of information collected by boating industry and user groups.

One such industry organization is Captain Experience, a booking agent with an online platform that vets sportfishing outfitters offering very high-end, long-range, bluewater fishing trips that originate from some of the top fishing ports on the eastern seaboard down through the Florida Keys. In Mexico and a couple of ports on the Pacific coast, they apply a statistical analysis of boating incidents from the 47 states that maintain an accident database. It ensures that captains promoted on their web display a high commitment to safety and in aggregate that they consistently have accident and fatality rates in the regions they provide fishing trips are below their regional and national averages. 

Captain Experience database only includes accidents among boaters required to maintain a hull registration, including here in Oregon, where in a five-year period, from 2018 to 2022, we racked up 312 boating accidents that caused 95 fatalities and about $3.5 million  in property damages.  In a larger context it pushed our annual boater fatality rate to about 12 individuals per year and the annual average of boating accidents to about 38 per year.  Which in both cases is about twice the national average and dubiously places Oregon as the 6th-most dangerous state to be a boater. Even Florida, with one million registered boats, has an accident and fatality that is half of Oregon’s.  People in human-powered craft do far better and power boaters should take notes.  According to the user group American Canoe & Kayak Association, based on a small handful of accidents, Oregonians that paddle or row their boat only average about three fatalities per season. 

According to the Oregon State Marine Board, most accidents happen when captains carelessly take their boat to the limits of its design capabilities without the proper training or experience. Being distracted and not paying attention or not having a proper lookout on the boat and “poor passenger and/or skier behavior.” Which is more about the captain’s inexperience and their ability to correctly orient their passengers to the boating environment. I sure hope we can do better this summer.

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