2 boating deaths in 2 weeks in Clay County serve as warning as Fourth of July weekend looms

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A passenger was ejected and killed on June 14 when a boat hit a dock along Black Creek in the Lake Asbury area, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
A passenger was ejected and killed on June 14 when a boat hit a dock along Black Creek in the Lake Asbury area, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

A man and woman were testing a new boat Tuesday on Clay County's Lake Geneva when the unexpected happened.

Thrown overboard with the boat's pilot, the 56-year-old Keystone Heights woman died after she hit the water, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission report states.

Elizabeth Spisak's death was the second reported boating fatality in Clay County in two weeks and came just three days before the start of the Fourth of July weekend and its predicted busy boating.

Florida tallied 751 reported boating accidents with 60 people killed last year alone, Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Karen Parker said.

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Missing boater's body found: Boat ramp at Clay County's Black Creek

"It is going to be extremely busy," Parker said. "... Our folks are going to be out not only looking for boating safety violations but also for enhanced enforcement of BUI (boating under the influence). Florida leads the nation with 1.013 million registered boaters and that's a lot of people to be on the water."

June boating deaths

Tuesday's Lake Geneva accident occurred in the waters off Breezy Point Road in Melrose at about 5 p.m. Paul Kolomitz, 68 of Melrose was at the helm with Spisak in a 12-foot Gheenhoe Water Bug that had been bought the day before, according to the incident report.

As they tested it, the long, narrow boat dipped to the left and they were thrown in the water as it almost capsized, the report said. Kolomitz found Spisak and hauled her to shore. Clay County Fire Rescue was called in and performed CPR, but the woman was declared dead.

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The earlier accident occurred about 11:30 a.m. on June 14 along Black Creek in the Lake Asbury area. A 19-foot boat with 71-year-old Earl Brookins at the helm hit a large boathouse dock "at a high rate of speed," according to the Fish and Wildlife report. Passenger Heather Anan, 44, was ejected, Taken to a hospital, she did not survive.

Both were from Fleming Island, and Brookins was hospitalized for injuries as well, the report said.

No one on either boat was wearing a life vest and both accidents remain under investigation, according to Fish and Wildlife.

By the numbers

• In 2021 Duval County had 27,728 registered vessels, with 17 reported accidents that left one person dead and 15 injured, according to Fish and Wildlife. Clay County had 13,713 registered boats, with seven reported accidents that left one person dead and eight injured. And Nassau County had 7,205 registered vessels with two people injured in five reported accidents and no fatalities.

• In 2020 Duval County had 26,624 registered vessels with 21 reported incidents that left one person dead and 24 injured, the agency reported. In Clay County there were 13,626 registered vessels, with six reported incidents that saw five people hurt, but no deaths. And among Nassau County's 6,972 registered vessels there were seven reported incidents that left three people hurt, but again no deaths.

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On a national level, the U.S. Coast Guard's 2021 recreational boating statistics reveal 658  fatalities, a 14% decrease from the 767 in 2020.

From 2020 to 2021, the total number of accidents decreased 16% (5,265 to 4,439), and the number of non-fatal injured victims decreased 17% (3,191 to 2,641).

Alcohol continued to be the leading known contributing factor in 2021, accounting for 86 deaths, or 16% of total fatalities, according to the Coast Guard.

Inattention, inability and inebriation

Statewide, the numbers were also tragic, as were the main causes.

• The leading cause of Florida's 2021's incidents — 227 — was because the boat operator did not have a proper lookout or was not paying attention, Florida Fish and Wildlife reported.

Another 92 were due to operator inexperience and 28 more due to alcohol or drugs. That compares to 240 of 2020's incidents caused by improper lookouts or not paying attention, 77 operator inexperience and 31 due to alcohol or drug use.

• Collisions with another boat was the leading type of accident statewide in 2021, making up 33% (250) of all incidents. Towing a skier or raft saw 11 incidents reported with one death and 12 injuries, while those who paddled canoes, kayaks, rowboats or paddleboards were involved in 13 accidents resulting in 10 fatalities. May saw the highest number of accidents (102) and fatalities (10).

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Overall, there were 60 fatalities, 19 of those falling overboard. Alcohol or drug use is reported to have played a role in 23% of 2021's boating fatalities.

• In 2020 there were 79 boating fatalities. Collisions with another vessel were again the leading type of accident with 224 (27%). Towed watersport activities saw 23 accidents, resulting in nine fatalities and 37 injuries. And there were 14 incidents involving paddled canoes, kayaks, rowboats or paddleboards, with 14 fatalities and one injury statewide. Alcohol or drug use is reported to have played a role in 23% of 2020's boating fatalities.

Once again, May was the month with the highest (120) number of accidents statewide.

Best advice for boaters

• Wear a life jacket, even if you can swim.

"If you are knocked unconscious, you won't be swimming," Parker said. "A life jacket can save lives."

• Be aware of what's happening around your boat, and learn how to control it, including taking a refresher course.

• Don't drink and drive a boat.

"We are really pushing zero tolerance," she said.

Float safeHoliday boating safety tips

• Let someone on land know where you and your boat are going, including where it is launching from and when you plan to return. An emergency locator beacon in case of trouble can help Fish and Wildlife or the Coast Guard track you.

"File a float plan. It doesn't have to be anything formal," Parker said. "If you run into trouble and we have to come look for you, we have a good place to start."

dscanlan@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4549

Designated driver

As the July 4 holiday approaches, the Sea Tow Foundation reminds boaters to have a Sober Skipper on board as everyone practices safe boating. The nonprofit organization, which provides on-water assistance and boat towing, works to eliminate boating under the influence by encouraging all boaters to designate a sober skipper before leaving the dock.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Clay County boating deaths caution Florida boaters ahead of July 4th