Wave of new boaters making Ontario's waterways unsafe during COVID-19, police and experts warn

Police and safety experts are urging new boaters to take training and certification courses at a time when many are taking to the water for the first time amid the pandemic. Their concern was underscored by a fatal accident last Thursday off Woodbine Beach in Toronto.

Fatal crash near a Toronto beach underscores worries about boating safety

With good weather this summer and pandemic restrictions on gatherings and travel, many new boaters have taken to the water to enjoy the outdoors while physically distancing. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Along with pandemic puppies and COVID-19 home renos, boating in Ontario has apparently experienced a boom in popularity this summer, raising questions about safety with so many novice boaters on the province's waterways.

People see it as a fun outdoor activity that easily lends itself to physical distancing, experts say. 

But Const. Kevin Lee of the Toronto Police Marine Unit says it's also been a busier summer than in recent years for service calls, partially due to inexperienced boaters.

"It's been kind of a compressed summer with a late start and the weather has been hot, so it's been a lot of people down here, a lot more boating traffic, a lot of the beaches are quite full of people," he said. "We've had calls for vessels in distress, broken down or they've gone overboard — just from lack of experience in how to operate a boat."

One man is dead and six others were injured after a boat crashed into the rocks at Woodbine Beach Thursday Sept. 3, 2020. Police are still investigating. (CBC)

The issue was underscored last Thursday by a fatal crash off Toronto's crowded Woodbine Beach, killing one man and injuring six others. Police are still investigating, but witnesses and at least one video suggest the vessel was travelling at high speed as it hurtled directly into a pile of rocks about 90 metres from the beach.

Lee says along with new boat owners, people renting boats have been a problem.

"You get a lot of people who really don't know how to operate them," he said. "Speeding is a problem. New boaters, because they may not have their licence to operate, they don't know what the speed limit is.

Boaters not only need what's known as a Pleasure Craft Operator Card, they also require a harbour licence to operate a vessel in the waters within the jurisdiction of the Toronto Port Authority, where it can get pretty congested with a mix of traffic —everything from large cargo ships, island ferry traffic to sail boats and kayaks. This area runs from Humber Bay in the west to Ashbridge's Bay in the east.

Craig Hamilton, who is with an organization called, says if people want to learn how to operate a boat properly they can take a course online to get their pleasure-craft operator card. It is a requirement to operate a boat in Canada.

"The course teaches safe operating speeds and such, so anybody who takes it will be taught all the rules of the road — safe operating speeds, speed zone restrictions and navigation."

He agrees that his summer has been busier than others with new boaters entering the market and the warmer than usual summer days that's attracted a lot more people to the water.

"We have more boaters out this year we're seeing people that are operating at unsafe speeds," says Hamilton, adding that the pandemic has meant a shortage of supply and less seaworthy boats out on the water.

Const. Kevin Lee, of the Toronto Police Marine Unit, says calls for service have been up this year. He says he has noticed many inexperienced boaters needing assistance. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

"We've seen older vessels because that's all there is or maybe that's all that their budget allows."

 Inexperienced boaters are not just a concern in the waters off Toronto.

Lawton Osler, the president of the Muskoka Lakes Association, a 2,300-member group of cottage owners, says he had a scary incident this summer when his vintage boat had engine trouble.

"I was having boats just scream by me -- full speed within 10 to 20 metres. Discourteous behaviour, people are not really caring about people around them," said Osler, who lives year-round on the shores of Lake Rosseau about 200 kilometres north of Toronto.

Craig Hamilton of advises new boaters to get a pleasure craft operator card, a requirement to operate a boat in Canada. He's also seen some older boats that may not be safe taking to the water, as any craft that floats is in demand. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

He also blames new boaters who have taken up the pastime during the pandemic.

"Boats are going so quickly and they are selling like hot cakes around here," said Osler, who heard that one local marina sold 100 personal watercraft in one day and had 100 orders it couldn't fill.

All that has made for unsafe situations, he said.  A 58-year-old Toronto man was killed in July, hit by a personal watercraft while he was sculling on Lake Muskoka.

"There's just too many boats in the water and they're going very, very quickly and then. There are operators that are not capable of doing at such high speeds."

Barbara Byers, the public education director of the Life Saving Society, says so far, this year there have been slightly fewer boating fatalities.

Her numbers, compiled from media, police and coroner's reports, indicate that as of last Friday, 60 people across Canada died in boating-related incidents, as compared with 65 for the period ending on that day last year.

Barbara Byers, the public education director with the Lifesaving Society, says boating fatalities have been slightly down this year, but the pandemic delayed the start of the season and she worries there may be more before it ends. (CBC)

For Ontario, there have been 16 fatalities for the same period, compared with 21 fatalities last year.

"With COVID everything was delayed. The boating season started later," Byers said. 

"It really it wasn't until the end of May, early June that we were allowed to leave our house, so the whole boating season was delayed probably by a month."

She advises people headed out on the water this long weekend to wear a personal flotation device.

"We know from looking at the stats every year that 80 to 90 per cent of people who drown were not wearing a life jacket."


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC National News

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with three decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.


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