Angler’s Near Tragedy Inspires Boating Safety Messaging

Bassmaster angler Hunter Bland shares his story of a boating accident and why it’s important to wear a life jacket when out on the water.

Fish
By David A. Brown
Fish Ambassador

Every year, when Hunter Bland joyfully celebrates Jan. 27, 2018, he also somberly recalls Jan. 14, 2017.

The former was the day he married his wife, Mariah. The latter was the day that nearly prevented the wedding — and a lifetime of memories.

Bassmaster Opens pro Hunter Bland survived a boating accident that inspired him to share his boating safety message as Yamaha’s safe boating advocate. (Photo: Dawson Bland)

Suffice it to say, the angler from Williston, Fla., values his marriage and the life he now lives, but he also appreciates his role in teaching folks how to avoid boating accidents like the one that nearly ended his life.

“I was only engaged for a month when that accident happened, so I almost never saw my wedding day,” Bland said. “I was young and tended to think I was invincible, but you realize things like your wedding day and just spending time with friends are really special, so that’s how important it is to boat safely.”

Putting that sentiment to action, the St. Croix Bassmaster Open Series presented by Mossy Oak fishing pro serves as Yamaha’s national safe boating advocate. Since Jan. 1, 2018, Bland’s nationwide travels have allowed him to address audiences from the Bassmaster College Series National Championship to high school tournaments and youth fishing clubs.

Hunter Bland talks boating safety with high school anglers. (Photo: Shane Durrance)

He has also spoken at major industry events, such as the International Boating and Water Safety Summit in Washington, D.C., and the Life Jacket Association Conference in Clearwater Beach, Fla. In each appearance, Bland leverages his practical experience along with his competitive activities for an engaging presentation designed to convey a potentially life-saving message.

“I loop in fishing because that’s the focal point for all of us to be able to talk on boating safety,” Bland said. “I focus heavily on boating safety [for] fishermen and boaters alike.”

Unforeseen Danger

Avoiding distractions, safe operating speed, no drinking and driving — several elements of boating safety seem glaringly obvious, with a straightforward cause-and-effect relationship. For Bland, his wake-up call struck like lightning.

Shortly after takeoff for an FLW College Fishing Series event, a hydraulic steering failure sent Bland’s boat into a sudden, sharp turn. The boat went right, he and his partner went left and the violent ejection sent them into the lake.

Bland was wearing his engine cut-off device (aka kill switch), but the boat’s momentum pulled it through a complete circle, and a disoriented Bland ended up beneath the hull.

“I realized something had gone really bad,” Bland said. “I realized something had happened that I thought would never happen, and that was me flying through the air.”

The truly frightening part of Bland’s experience was when the boat ended up over his head, trapping him underneath. The boat was still upright, but in his disorientation, Bland simply couldn’t determine where he was or how to escape.

“I bumped my head a few times, and then I remembered how you’re taught in swim lessons as a little kid to kick off the wall,” Bland said. “When I did that, I was able to pop out from underneath the boat.

“I was ejected about 10 feet, but my partner went farther — probably 20 to 30 feet — so he didn’t get trapped under the boat.”

Bland’s partner, who had already inflated his own personal flotation device, swam over and helped Bland activate his manual PFD. Surprisingly, neither angler suffered serious injury.

“The God story in the whole thing is that I’m alive by, like, an inch; I walked away with scratches and bruises and that was it,” Bland said. “I look at that video and think, ‘God had other plans for me; he just used a boat accident to get my attention.’”

National Awareness

Bland’s message resonates 24/7/365 (and 366 for Leap years), but it gains traction during the National Safe Boating Council’s National Safe Boating Week, May 21-27.

The week is the annual kickoff of the NSBC’s Safe Boating Campaign, a global awareness effort that encourages boaters to make the most of their boating adventure by being responsible.

Produced under a grant from the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund and administered by the U.S. Coast Guard, the campaign offers a variety of free and paid resources to support local boating safety education efforts.

The National Safe Boating Council’s Wear It campaign promotes PFD use. (Photo by Dawson Bland) (Photo: David Brown)

Established in 1958, the National Safe Boating Council is the foremost coalition for the advancement and promotion of safer boating through education, outreach and training. One of the council’s primary initiatives is the Wear It campaign, which encourages recreational boaters and water sports enthusiasts to make an online pledge to wear their life jacket and encourage others to do the same.

Making A Difference

One of the most common questions Bland addresses: “Is a PFD really necessary?” He’s quick to stress the “yes,” a position clearly supported by national statistics.

According to the NSBC site, U.S. Coast Guard statistics list drowning as the reported cause of death in four out of five recreational boating fatalities (2020 data). Eighty-six percent of those drowning victims were not wearing PFDs.

Remaining safe on the water ensures lots of great memories. (Photo: David Brown)

Bland described the common PFD pushback as understandable but completely inaccurate. That’s why he strongly recommends a boating safety course.

“With the influx of new boaters we’re seeing, many of them might have been on a boat once or twice and now they want to recreate with their friends and family,” he said. “That’s all well and good, but they might only have (a total of) 3 hours of operating experience, which could be helping another boater load the boat after a sunset cruise.

“Taking a safe boating course, gaining more education and increasing your operating hours before taking a boat out on your own will ensure that you understand all that goes along with being a responsible operator.”

From his own hard-learned lesson, Bland strongly suggests powerboaters invest in hydrostatic PFDs, which inflate when submerged, even if the boater is incapacitated. Some, like the Mustang Survival M.I.T. 100, offer a dual design that inflates upon submersion while including a manual inflation handle.

“We did everything right, in terms of safe boating,” Bland said of his accident. “The only thing I would change would be never wearing a manual PFD. Those really only apply for kayaks and paddleboards, where the chances of you falling overboard [and] hitting your head or something are very minimal.”

Bland also stresses these key points.

Engine Cut-Off Device (“kill switch”) — A legal requirement for recreational boats under 26 feet in length, this device attaches to the helm with a lanyard that clips to the driver’s PFD. Should the driver leave the helm for any reason, the device is disengaged and the engine immediately stops. (Wireless electronic versions also exist.)

Float Plan — Before launching, leave a written summary of your takeoff time and location, the area you plan to cover and when you intend to return. This, along with a description of your vessel and any passengers, will facilitate search efforts should your trip exceed the expected time frame.

“You might see a truck and trailer at a boat ramp (in the evening), and you don’t know if (the owner) is out frog gigging or if they’re supposed to have been back three hours ago,” Bland said. “If something does happen, the quicker you can get help there, the better.”

Bland explains float plans.

The U.S. Coast Guard offers a comprehensive float plan template.

A first-aid/emergency kit should be a foundational element of every boater’s safety plan. (Photo: Dawson Bland)

First-Aid Kit — When injuries occur on the water, medical attention may require a long wait. The ability to address a variety of incidents with a well-stocked first-aid kit can minimize the overall impact. Angleraid.com offers a variety of well-stocked first aid/emergency boxes.

The NSBC adds these suggestions.

  • Check equipment — Schedule a free vessel safety check with your local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary or U.S. Power Squadrons to make sure all essential equipment is present, working and in good condition.
  • Watch the weather — Always check the forecast before departing and frequently during the excursion.
  • Know whats going on around you at all times — Nearly a quarter of all reported boating accidents in 2020 were caused by operator inattention or improper lookout.
  • Keep in touch — Have more than one communication device that works when wet. VHF radios, emergency locator beacons, satellite phones and cellphones can all be important devices in an emergency.

Never Too Soon For Safety

Bland believes that instilling safety lessons by example and direct teaching is crucial to equipping the next generation of boaters. Start them young, he said, and …

“What we talk about a lot in the boating safety world is that target demographic — typically 20- to 60-year-old males who have been boating frequently throughout the course of their life,” he said. “They think nothing will ever happen to them and that they’re invincible because they’ve been doing it so long.

“I think the earlier we start teaching safe boating to young and new boaters, the earlier they’re going to adopt it and it’s going to become muscle memory. It’s just like driving a car — from the moment you get your learner’s permit, you’re taught that the first thing you do is put on a seatbelt.”

Bland closes by advising paddlers and small boaters that safety preparation and practices are not limited to powerboats.

“Anytime you’re recreating on the water, safety is superimportant,” he said. “You can never predict the unexpected but you can surely prepare for it.

“So, whether I’m running down the lake in my Skeeter/Yamaha or I’m on a paddleboard, something could happen when I least expect it. If I can accomplish all precautionary measures, then I’m giving myself the best possible chance for a positive outcome in a negative scenario.”

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