Water, water everywhere and ... lots and lots of boats.
Despite its relatively small size, South Carolina is near the top of the charts when it comes to boating. If you compare the number of registered boats to the Palmetto State's population, it computes to a 1 in 10 ratio.
"We're actually seventh in the nation per capita with over 500,000 registered boats," said Major Billy Downer of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. People don't realize that 30 percent of our state is water. We have coastline, inland rivers and streams, mountains and lakes. People don't think we compare with states like Florida, California, Michigan or New York, states that have these huge waterways. But we do.
"Alvin Taylor (recently retired Director of SCDNR) used to say it best. He said you can't go anywhere in South Carolina on a back road without seeing a boat in somebody's backyard. Whether it's a johnboat or a center console, one with five motors on the back, you're going to see boats everywhere you go."
According to SCDNR, South Carolina has 3,000 miles of coastline crammed into an area less than 200 miles from border to border as the crow flies; there are more than 8,000 miles of rivers and 460,000 acres of lakes. The half-million boats range from small sneak boats to large offshore fishing vessels and all manner of sailboats.
Charleston County leads the list of registered boats with more than 36,000, followed by Lexington (31,000) and Horry (25,000). Berkeley County has more than 18,000 registered boats while Dorchester County is just under 10,000.
With so many people interested in boating, it shouldn't come as a surprise that South Carolina is also a major player when it comes to manufacturing boats, much of it centered here in the Lowcountry. It's a multimillion-dollar business. Key West, Scout and Sea Fox boats are three of the larger boat builders headquartered in the tri-county area and they ship boats worldwide. A sampling of their markets includes Hawaii, Australia and France.
But it's not just owning a boat. It's doing something with that boat.
Boaters love to compete. For many years South Carolina was home to the world's largest fishing tournament, the Arthur Smith King Mackerel Tournament which often had approximately 1,000 entries. That event has gone by the wayside, replaced by smaller events. The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society and FLW professional bass fishing series often bring their championships (and boats) to South Carolina waters to compete.
Several thousand sailors, many from other states and countries, gather each spring for Charleston Race Week, the largest keelboat regatta in North and South America. Hundreds of sailors compete throughout the summer months in local regattas staged by local yacht clubs.
With so many people on the water, it's surprising that there aren't more accidents, but fatalities do occur. In 2018, there were 15 fatalities as a result of 142 recreational boating accidents. In 2017, there also were 15 fatalities from 163 accidents.
Boaters under 16 are required by law to pass an approved boater education course before operating, without supervision, a personal watercraft or a boat powered by a 15-horsepower motor or more.
The SCDNR, Coast Guard Auxiliary and U.S. Power Squadrons all offer recognized boater education courses, and dates usually can be found at the SCDNR website (dnr.sc.gov).
"Certain years we tend to have more accidents, but we feel like from a boating safety standpoint that we do a really good job of making the public aware of what they need to do to be safe. Could we do better? We could always do better. One fatality is too many," Downer said.
Downer said one of SCDNR's biggest successes is the courtesy boat inspections held around the state, often during big boat weekends such as Memorial Day and Fourth of July.
"These are part of our effort to let the public be aware of what you need to do before you even get on the water without giving you a ticket," Downer said.
Not having a fire extinguisher, a whistle or a throwable device are common violations. Most common, though, is not having the proper number and right type of personal flotation devices (life jackets).
"These things help keep people safer on the water and give them an opportunity to get back to the store before they get on the water and get a ticket," Downer said. "We do around 57 courtesy boat inspections each year.
"Any time we have a safety discussion, we always talk about personal flotation devices. Like a seat belt in a car, they can help save your life if you're in an accident. If you are unconscious and thrown from a boat, you have a better chance of surviving an accident if you're wearing a personal flotation device. Make sure you have a PFD for everyone on board, and make sure they fit everybody on board. Children need to have PFDs that fit. If a child gets in an adult life jacket and has to jump in the water, the force of them hitting the water is going to force the life jacket off of them because it's too big."