Sport Fishermen's Deaths on Chesapeake Bay Latest in Deadly Year on Virginia (VA) Waters | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

By mid-September, Virginia (VA) Game and Inland Fisheries officials already knew that 2009 was an uncommonly dangerous year for boaters and users of personal watercraft such as Jet Skis. The agency released statistics showing that 124 people had died, disappeared or been hospitalized because of accidents involving boats and watercraft. Since then, several more people have suffered serious consequences from being capsized, being washed overboard or striking rocks or other craft.

The latest tragedy occurred last week near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel when, for reasons still being investigated, two men with decades of experience operating private fishing boats wound up in the water while not wearing life vests and drowned. The families of 83-year-old Jefferson Sykes and 75-year-old Allen Fuller told the Virginian-Pilot on Dec. 6 that both men knew to stay ashore during inclement weather and did not engage in dangerous practices when on the water.

While crabs attract watermen in both areas, the Chesapeake Bay shares little in common with the Bering Sea. Nevertheless, efforts to catch fish and shellfish can prove no less deadly in either place. And while the destroyer-sized trawlers featured in Deadliest Catch are certainly dangerous, 28-footers like the one Sykes and Fuller were on last week leave their occupants much more vulnerable to any natural or man-made hazards to navigation. A 4-foot wave or even a cargo ship’s wake can breach a small boat, for instance. Shifting debris from old wrecks or waterfront construction can easily poke holes in fiberglass hulls. Large ships can even overtake and sail over and through other craft.

The exact cause of the accident that claimed Sykes’ and Fuller’s lives may never be known. That would be doubly painful, as it would leave the fishermen’s families without their loved ones and leave other boaters without lessons to learn for protecting themselves. After all, only determining the cause of an accident will let people take the proper safety measures to avoid such accidents in the future.