The unforgiving nature of narrow, curving rivers and sloughs, faster and faster boats, reckless behavior and the lack of mandatory boater education in California combine to make the state's inland waterways more dangerous to people in small boats than even the vast Pacific Ocean.
As tens of thousands of boaters flock this month to rivers, remote mountain lakes and reservoirs, and the notoriously dangerous San Joaquin Delta, the data shows that people are often injured or killed in boating accidents that could be prevented with common sense.
"When you have horsepower, particularly on personal watercraft and ski boats, people smell those gas fumes and they lose about 100 IQ points," said Cary Smith, president of the California Boating Safety Officers Association.
Between 1995 and 2004 there were 4,754 reported recreational boating accidents in Northern California and the two Nevada counties on the eastern side of Lake Tahoe, according to data analyzed by the Times. Those accidents claimed 364 lives and injured 3,033 people.
During a nine-year period that could be more deeply analyzed by accident location, more accidents were reported, for instance, on Lake Berryessa in Napa County, 248, Lake Shasta in Shasta County, 455, and the five-county Delta region, 1,061, than in the Pacific from Monterey County to Oregon, 191.
Eighty-eight percent of accidents in inland waters can be blamed on the behavior of boat drivers and passengers, such as speeding, drinking, inattention, overcrowding crafts and letting people drive who lack the knowledge to do so safely, according to the data. In the Delta, that figure rose to 92 percent.
In contrast, the Coast Guard and the National Boating Safety Council report, the nationwide average for accidents blamed on boaters' behavior is 70 percent.
"We have so much power and strength in these boats now," said Chris Lauritzen, owner of an Oakley marina and a vice president of the California Marina Recreation Association. "There are boats out here that can go 70 mph. There are no brakes on a boat."
No training required
State law requires boaters to follow basic rules of the road. They must sound a horn when passing a boat going in the same direction. They must not go too fast for the immediate conditions, which on California's lakes and rivers are often crowded. They must raise a flag when someone is in the water around their boat, such as a skier waiting to be pulled.
But California is one of just 16 states that doesn't require boaters to take educational classes to learn those rules. There's no state boating license. There's no mandated training.
The data shows the overwhelming need for the state to put in place mandatory training before allowing people to drive boats, Smith and other safety experts said.
"Training means less chance to make preventable mistakes," said Paul Newman, a Coast Guard recreational boating specialist.
"The problem is all you need to buy a boat is a handful of money," said Elroy Booker of a Antioch, a veteran boater who is a member of the Ebony Boat Club near Isleton.
Booker said a friend recently bought a boat to replace one he's fished with for a decade. When Booker saw the new boat he gave his friend a pop safety quiz. He pointed to a red light on the side of the craft and asked "What's that for?"
The man replied '"I have no idea,"' Booker said.
The light is supposed to be lit when a boater is returning to harbor. It's one of the most simple boating rules: R for both red and returning. It is a way of letting other people on the water know a boater's direction and intention.
"He had no idea," Booker said. "None. And he's been boating out here 10 years."
Chief David James, who commands the Coast Guard station at Rio Vista, has worked all over the country during his 20-year career. The waters of Northern California and the behavior of people who boat there make him, for the first time, "fear for my own guys out there, and they patrol it every day. This is the scariest place I've seen for operating a boat."
James said he was perplexed when he was transferred to California and found that state doesn't mandate boater safety training.
"It's an eye-opener when you come out here with as much water as California has and (boater education) is not a requirement," he said.
"People buy a boat and you see them putting it in the same day. Then they come around the bends doing 40 (mph) and there's no way to avoid a head-on. What you have is inexperience and too much speed."
"If there was a law"
An accident blamed on speed and inexperience killed Michael P. Blondell on Italian Slough in southeastern Contra Costa on May 12, 2002. Blondell, a former Navy Seal, and his wife and daughter were cruising around a bend in the slough when another boat came straight at them.
"There was very little time," his widow, Susan E. Blondell said. The other driver "wasn't steering properly. He kept turning right into us."
Susan Blondell later learned that the other driver had never piloted a boat before. His craft was crowed with people. A teenager on board was paralyzed in the accident.
"It was his first time out on a boat," she said of the other driver. "If there was a law, if people had to have a license, I really think it wouldn't have happened."
For more than 20 years the National Transportation Safety Board has urged states to pass laws to make boater education mandatory. The last effort in California was in 1999, when Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a bill that would have required boaters to pass a written test and obtain a certificate.
Davis saw no need to make boaters "run the gauntlet of yet another government bureaucracy to obtain licenses to pilot their boats," he wrote in a veto message.
Mandatory education and testing in other states have reduced accidents and fatalities, said Bill Gossard, the NTSB's recreational boating safety program coordinator.
"You just can't have people out on the water driving around willy-nilly in a high-speed vessel," he said.
Most of the state's that have yet to adopt mandatory training are in the west where there is still a culture "where folks don't want anyone to tell them what to do," Gossard said. "It's one of the last bastions of freedom."
Data from states that passed mandatory education show a reduction in accidents after the regulatory change. In Alabama, for example, annual boating deaths dropped 44 percent over five years, according to Coast Guard data.
Some people involved in boating might agree to training if it was made clear to them how such a system would work, said Don Abbott, executive director of the California Yacht Brokers Association.
"We really don't want licenses. Who's going to do it? What do you do about rental places? Right now there are too many 'what-ifs,'" he said. "We need something, but how are we going to do it?"
The California Department of Boating and Waterways will conduct two public hearings later this summer to gather input from boaters on mandatory education. The department has not taken a position, its spokeswoman, June Iljana said.
Department Director Raynor Tsuneyoshi did not respond to several requests for interviews. "I don't see a benefit to the boaters of California or the department in the director being interviewed." Iljana said.
Someone will die
North of Discover Bay, narrow Indian Slough bends into an S-curve.
It links Discovery Bay and a popular nearby launching ramp on Werner Cut with Old River. It is one of the more dangerous water bodies in the Delta, the Times analysis shows.
Thirty-six accidents -- four of them fatal -- were reported in Indian Slough and Werner Cut in the nine-year period from 1995-99 and 2001-04. Accident location data for 2000 was not available.
Fifty-three more accidents occurred on Old River -- eight of them fatal -- during the same time.
The number of reported accidents probably doesn't reflect all the mishaps that occur, said Cary Smith, the president of the state Boating Safety Officer's Association. State law requires that boaters report any accident that results in $500 or more damage to a boat or an injury that requires hospitalization.
"There is more going on out there than we are seeing in the data," Smith said.
As boaters raced along Indian Slough on a recent Saturday afternoon, young men on personal watercraft, commonly referred to by the Kawasaki trademark name Jet Skis, steered toward the edge of a levee when the boats approached the way children playing ball in a street might run to the curb when a car approached.
But just as the boats passed, the young men gunned their motors and raced into the cresting wake as close to the boats' sterns as they could get, launching into the air, landing hard on the riled water as more boats bore down on them, not slowing.
Revelers crowded aboard the boats, their skin glistening with sun screen and tanning oils, waved beer cans and cocktail glasses to onlookers. Few, if any, were wearing a life jacket.
"No one goes out for a day of boating and thinks someone is going to die," said Paul Newman, the Coast Guard recreational boating specialist.
But people do die while boating, often because simple safe-boating rules are ignored.
On the levee above Indian Slough, two wooden crosses stand faded and cracking as boaters speed past them.
A deflated balloon is tied to one with a ribbon, a tiny pink plastic heart to the other.
They stand near where Gail Vadala, Gene Potts and Dina Nuccio died in separate accidents that typify boating safety issues. A few hundred yards away on Werner Cut, a fourth person, Sott Hale, also died.
Vadala, a 29-year-old medical technician, was riding a Yamaha Wave Ventura personal watercraft when she turned into the path of 20-foot boat that struck her broadside. A woman riding another personal watercraft next to her escaped without injury. The accident was blamed on Vadala's inexperience.
Potts, 53, suffered a massive head injury when the borrowed 19-foot ski boat he was driving collided with a 19-foot bass boat carrying three Oakland men, who survived. The accident was blamed on the drivers not knowing basic boating rules of how to avoid each other as they came around a bend. Both boats were going more than 20 miles per hour when they hit head-on, according to the database.
Hale, 41, died when the personal watercraft he was driving collided with a 28-foot motor boat at night. The accident was blamed on lack of proper lighting on the crafts that might have allowed the drivers to see each other.
Nuccio was 6 and not wearing a life jacket as state law requires for children. Exhaust fumes overwhelmed her and she fell into the water and drowned. Nuccio's mother, Carla Nuccio, and her boyfriend, Roger Marks, were each sentenced to two years' probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor child endangerment charges.
Carla Nuccio insisted that she did nothing wrong. "If it was windy it never would have happened," she said.
Nuccio's father, John Nuccio, 45, of Iola in Amador County said he supports mandatory boater education. "It's as important as hunter safety," he said. The state requires anyone obtaining a hunting license for the first time to complete a safety class. Driving a boat "is like a car. I don't see the difference (between a car) and a boat."
"I won't go out"
The Times analysis shows that Vadala was one of 35 people killed in Northern California during a nine-year period while riding a personal wartercraft. All occurred on inland water bodies.
"Jet Skis are a pain in the neck," said Jim Corsaunt, owner of Marine Tech in Isleton. "They jump your wake. They buzz around your boat."
"They just go too fast," said James Mack of Dublin, a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. "Discovery Bay is a trouble spot. You get water skiers and fishermen and Jet Skis and cruisers. When you get that mix in there, it gets dangerous."
In all, there were 1,478 personal watercrafts involved in accidents during the nine years that could be analyzed. The medium age of the drivers was 24. More than 95 percent of the accidents occurred in inland waters, with the most, 136, on Lake Berryessa. Berryessa is a 23-mile-long man-made reservoir east of Napa Valley. From the deck of his home high on the lake's south end, Dr. Patrick J. Szucs, 54, an avid boater, can see miles of water and on weekends hundreds of boats and personal watercrafts.
"I look out there and I can count 200 boats, and that might be light, and I won't go out," Szucs said. "They intentionally take risks. Four boats will be coming at you and instead of moving to the side, they try to squeeze through."
A boat unlike a car can't be slowed by stomping on a brake and even at slower speeds people can be ejected from a boat into the water, he said. "An inexperienced driver in a boat is more dangerous than an inexperienced driver in a car."
Szucs also keeps boats in the Delta and Richmond. "People party too much and use bad judgment. You get six or seven people running around on the boat without lifejackets," he said.
The single biggest thing that can immediately make boater's safer is to wear lifejackets at all times when on the water, safety officers said.
"We wear them every time we go out," said James, the Coast Guard chief in Rio Vista. "It isn't for show. They save your life. Life jackets are something that should key into mariners' heads when they see the Coast Guard personnel with them on 24-7."
The Coast Guard data base shows the stark reality of not wearing a life jacket.
In the nine-year period that could be analyzed, the data shows that 230 of the accident victims drowned.
Of the 230 drowning victims, 157 could not swim.
Of the 157 non-swimmers who drowned, 138 of them weren't wearing life jackets.
Thomas Peele is a Times investigative reporter. Reach him at 925-977-8463 or email@example.com.