Millions of people come to the South Jersey shore looking for fun, but many scuttle their own good times through risky behavior.
Every year, people are seriously injured on boats, personal watercraft and in the surf, as operator inattention and hazardous habits meet crowded waterways and rough waves.
Since 2006, the Regional Trauma Unit at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, City Campus, in Atlantic City has handled more than 140 serious water-related accidents. Men younger than 40, personal watercraft users and surfers were the most common patients, said Monica Titus, program director at the center.
“We’ve already treated at least four patients for water-related injuries, and we haven’t yet hit the first day of summer,” Titus said in a statement last week. “Warmer than usual temperatures could be part of the reason.”
AtlantiCare statistics show locals and tourists are equally likely to be injured, and the most serious accidents are due to diving, personal watercraft use, kayaking and wakeboarding.
Other area hospitals did not have specific figures for water-related accidents, but representatives said they commonly admit patients for similar issues.
Lisa Sulzman, nurse manager of the emergency department at Shore Memorial Hospital in Somers Point, said her staff commonly treats people with strained muscles and joints from body boarding wipeouts or rough personal watercraft landings.
“They don’t realize when they go up in the air how hard they’re going to land and what a jolt that is on their neck and back,” Sulzman said.
While water-related injuries reflect a small percentage of hospitals’ total admissions — less than 4 percent at AtlantiCare each summer — safety advocates, lifeguards and officials say the number of accidents can still be reduced.
Dave Stearne, a lieutenant and 20-year veteran of the Sea Isle City Beach Patrol, said he teaches his rookie lifeguards every year to proactively monitor the surf and make sure people are being as safe as possible.
“Our job is safety, their job is happiness,” the West Chester, Pa., resident said.
In some cases, however, that happiness has inherent risk.
Skimboaders bracing themselves while falling often injure their arms or shoulders. Surfers and bodyboarders sometimes ride waves that push them down into wet, hard-packed sand, causing collarbone and spinal injuries.
In other cases, lifeguards step in to stop clearly dangerous behavior, such as swimming too far from the beach or playing football in the shallow water.
“If we see a lot of horseplay, we put the kibosh on that before it leads to an injury,” Stearne said.
Meanwhile, boating safety instructors say they do their best to keep waterways safe by teaching operators to err on the side of caution, drive slower, wear lifejackets and stay docked when there is dangerous weather.
About half of the water-related injuries AtlantiCare has handled in the past four years happened on a boat or personal watercraft.
The U.S. Coast Guard says boating accidents have declined dramatically since 1996. New Jersey saw 116 boating accidents last year, killing eight people, injuring 49 and causing $153,000 worth of property damage.
Operator inattention, excessive speed and alcohol use were the most common causes of injuries in 2010, Coast Guard statistics show.
Lew Donovan, of Pitman, Gloucester County, runs Safety First Boating School, which teaches about 1,000 people a year throughout South Jersey for the state-required safe boating test.
He said he commonly sees boaters speeding through the inlet off Brigantine, not wearing life jackets and cutting too close to other boats.
Donovan said mixing boating with alcohol is especially foolish. In fact, the Coast Guard attributed seven boating deaths and nine injuries in New Jersey since 2006 to alcohol usage.
“Boating is a sober high,” he said. “I always tell my classes that this is one of the few things in life you can enjoy without getting intoxicated. In fact, the exact opposite will happen.”
Water-related accidents don’t only happen around the ocean, however: Pools can be just as dangerous as the open sea for children.
The state Department of Children and Families has a “Not Even for One Second” campaign that seeks to make parents and caregivers aware of the risks posed by leaving children unattended around water.
“I don’t think everyone realizes how easy it is for a child to get hurt in a backyard,” department Commissioner Allison Blake said.
Blake said drowning is one of the leading causes of child deaths every year. She said teaching children to swim at an early age will help reduce the risk.
“We find that these are true accidents, and sometimes it’s just for a second that a parent or caregiver looks away, and it can have devastating consequences,” she said. “There is no substitute for supervision.”
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