Intracoastal Waterway in Myrtle Beach leading state in boat crashes, data shows

Grand Strand

A boat travels down the Intracoastal Waterway in Horry County.

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — More watercraft were involved in crashes along the Intracoastal Waterway in Myrtle Beach than anywhere else in the state last year, according to a 2020 report from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. 

The Intracoastal Waterway in Myrtle Beach tied with Lake Murray for the highest number of crashes in 2020, with each experiencing 19 crashes, according to the SCDNR’s Law Enforcement Investigation Statistics 2020 report. However, more vessels were involved in Myrtle Beach, with 26, compared to 23.

In 2019, the Intracoastal Waterway in Myrtle Beach had 11 crashes involving 19 vessels, injuring seven people. It came second to Lake Murray, which had 22 vessels involved in 13 crashes that left seven people injured and one dead. 

Those numbers have led to local calls for change to make the waterway safer.

“We have to make that waterway safer for the boaters,” said South Carolina Rep. William Bailey, R-Horry County.

Bailey organized a community meeting several weeks ago to address safety along the waterway and brainstorm solutions. He plans to hold more, with the next tentatively planned for early September in North Myrtle Beach. 

Horry County led the state in boat crashes last year, with 34 crashes leading to 17 injures and two deaths. The second-highest number was in Charleston County, where 26 crashes led to nine injuries and one death.

Overall, boat crashes in South Carolina have decreased significantly over the last five decades. In 1973, when there were 128,000 boats registered in the state, there were 64 boating deaths. 

Almost 50 years later, there were 770,000 recreational motorboats registered in the state, and 161 crashes and 29 fatalities in 2020.

The SCDNR has attributed the overall decrease in crashes to increased law enforcement, boating safety laws and boating education classes. 

However, crash numbers have been steadily increasing again over the last decade, as more and more boats are added to the waterways. Crashes jumped from 146 in 2019 to 161 in 2020, with 29 people killed in 2020 — more than double how many deaths were in 2019. There were 98 crashes in 2011. The number of registered boats has also increased by more than 300,000 within the last decade.

The SCDNR has attributed last year’s increase to a spike in boat sales that was spurred by pandemic shutdowns. 

Failure to maintain a proper lookout, was the top cause of crashes, followed by inexperience, although more than half of crashes were with operators who had more than 100 hours of experience. People with less than 10 hours of experience accounted for 41 of the 161 crashes.

About 29% of all crashes ended up with criminal charges. 

Michael Thomas, the captain of Region Four law enforcement for the SCDNR, attributes the Intracoastal Waterway in Myrtle Beach crash numbers to three factors — high boat traffic, a narrow waterway and inexperience. 

In addition to commercial vessels, the waterway is also filled with recreational and rental vehicles, like jet skis. 

“It’s not all due to a lack of education or negligence or whatever,” Thomas said. “Accidents can happen. They can happen in any part of the state at any time.”

Thomas points out that jet skis have no brakes, and many people are riding one for the first time. While it’s fun to go fast and fall off, he strongly urges awareness. 

Thomas said that it’s legal in South Carolina to rent a watercraft without prior experience on one.

“A majority of them get out there and have a good time and there is no problem,” he said.

Thomas, who was at the Intracoastal Waterway meeting that Bailey hosted, said that adding officers would help, but that the SCDNR can’t have them everywhere all the time. He understands a push for no-wake zones in the area but said that companies are making their livelihoods on rentals, and most people are obeying the rules of the waterway.

Bailey said the Intracoastal Waterway was created for transportation and has become a recreation hub in the county. Now, million-dollar homes are popping up along its shores, and their owners want protection from the traffic. 

“The waves are rockin’ and rollin’, and we do on occasion have people who run into these docks and these structures and damage it,” he said. 

Residents have urged him to pursue a no-wake zone for the entire area.

Bailey is resistant to the idea. A 200-foot no-wake zone works in other areas in the state, he said, but the Intracoastal Waterway isn’t wide enough in Myrtle Beach from one. A zone could also destroy fishing businesses.

“So we have to come up with a compromise,” he said. 

That could involve a no-wake zone that would be in effect between 50 feet and 100 feet from structures. 

He said the waterway is an asset to the community, and he’s considering legislation that would require a short, online boater education class. Bailey envisions the classes teaching what signage means, the rules of the waterway and what a no-wake zone is. That requirement would apply to rentals, as well.

Use the database below to search for crashes by South Carolina body of water.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Trending Stories