Are Airboat Rides Dangerous?


Crashed airboat

Airboat rides are available throughout the US with arguably the most famous being in the Everglades of Florida. However, with a number of accidents, and several deaths, caused by airboat crashes it is not unreasonable to ask if airboats rides are dangerous.

Most airboat rides are safe for people of all ages as the boats are operated by trained professionals who know the boat and the area very well. However, there have been accidents, and some deaths, that have occurred during airboat ride excursions though they are rare. Most airboat accidents occur on privately owned boats or on self-drive tour boats Driving an airboat requires no driving license, however commercial airboat tour drivers are legally required to undertake training and pass a test.

Are airboat rides dangerous?

Airboat rides have been around for a long time and make up a large part of the tourist industry in certain parts of the US, with South Florida benefiting greatly from the trade. But are they safe?

Some people think airboat rides are not as safe as they could be. Although there have been voices calling for tighter regulation on airboat tours, and how they operate, for many decades, very little attention was given to them by those in positions of power. That is until fairly recently when deaths started to occur.

As you can see from posts made on Trip Advisor over 10 years ago there was little concern about the unregulated nature of airboat tours. It was simply assumed by tourists that because these tours existed and have existed for decades that they must be safe.

However, after a spate of recent accidents and the untimely and unfortunate death of several people, a 22-year-old just-graduated young woman named Ellie Goldenberg among them, it started to look like there may well be some very real cause for concern.

At last regulators started to listen to those who had been crying out for regulations fro many years with airboat tour operators being among them.

Accidents and deaths

In 2017 just-graduated Ellie Goldenberg and her family were celebrating her graduation from the University of Miami when their airboat flipped over. Everyone onboard was thrown into the water. Although others sustained no life-threatening injuries, the young Miss Goldenberg was pinned under the engine of the overturned boat and drowned.

The driver of the airboat tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, though no charges were brought against him.

Due largely to this horrible accident, in July 2018 the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission introduced new safety regulations for all airboat operators that require drivers to complete a training course and pass a mandatory exam proving they can safely operate an airboat. While at around the same time the Florida Legislature changed airboat safety standards by passing “Ellie’s Law” named after Miss Goldenberg.

This is not the only recent accident involving airboats though, unfortunately.

In May 2016, a Naples man named Tyler Johns was involved in an airboat accident that resulted in part of his left arm being severed.

Also in 2017, the same year as the Ellie Goldenberg accident, at the River Lakes Conservation Area, near Cocoa, an airboat overturned hurtling four men into the water. After an extensive search of the area two of the men were recovered safely while the other two were found dead.

A witness who watched the boat flip over from the nearby Lone Cabbage Fish Camp said the airboat was travelling recklessly.

On the same stretch of water in 2019 another airboat flipped causing injury to three people.

Although these accidents are frightening, regretful and may cause you to reconsider taking an airboat ride, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission remains vigilant in its attempts to enforce airboat safety rules and reports that airboat accidents are relatively rare.

The statistics seem to back up this view. For example in 2016 Florida experienced a total of 714 boating accidents but airboats were involved in only 31 of those. This is only approximately 4%  of the annual accident total making airboats appear to be some of the safest boats in Florida waters.

So, are airboat tours safe?

With some horrific injuries and even deaths occurring after airboat accidents you may be wondering just how safe it is to step onto an airboat.

Airboat rides that are offered by licensed tour operators are safe. Although there have been unfortunate accidents in the past they are rare. Most airboat accidents occur on privately owned boats or when inexperienced people take a self-guided tour where they operate the airboat themselves. Airboat tours are considered safe as long as you use an authorized and established tour operator and follow some simple safety protocols.

Most airboat accidents occur on privately owned vessels or on self-drive airboats. Due to the lack of strict regulations, compared to other motorized transportation, some airboat owners act recklessly while tourists push the boat past its limits due to inexperience.

As you do not need a driving license to operate an airboat anyone can rent one and take to the water.

However, with a tour operator the airboat you are travelling on will be piloted by a trained professional who not only knows how to handle an airboat but who is familiar with the exact airboat model he/she is driving. That commercial airboat pilot will also have completed a mandatory training course and will have passed a test that shows his/her competence to operate an airboat safely.

Additionally the airboat pilot will also be extremely familiar with the terrain the boat is used on, having navigated the exact same waterways several times per day probably over the span of many years or even decades. In most cases the airboat driver will know every inch of every waterway you will be boating on.

So airboat rides are safe as long as you use a licensed tour operator with a good safety record. Don’t be afraid to ask the operator if they have been involved in any accidents and what their safety policy is, if they test their drivers for drug use etc. Most airboat tour operators are highly professional organizations that prioritize the safety of their customers over everything.

Bear in mind that airboat rides tend to feel a lot less safe than they really are. It is the nature of the ride.

Although airboat rides can be exhilarating, and it can feel like the boat is travelling at excessive speeds, 20 – 30 mph on an airboat is the standard speed for tour boats. This speed can feel much faster than it actually is simply because you are open to the elements, especially the wind. Where 30 mph in a road vehicle can feel moderate or even slow, depending on the road you are on, on an airboat it can feel extremely fast. This doesn’t mean your airboat pilot is speeding though!

Speed rarely flips an airboat unless it tries to go through the wake of another vessel or turns into its own wake. This is highly unlikely to happen on an airboat tour as the boat is being piloted by an experienced professional.

Most airboat accidents occur on privately owned airboats or on airboats that are being operated by untrained individuals such as on self-guided tours. If you want to stay safe on an airboat use a licensed tour operator with a trained airboat pilot onboard.

As a final word I would like to point out that airboat tours are much less dangerous than many other forms of boating such as some types of kayaking, and canoeing, as well as river rafting. In fact, taking an airboat tour is safer than river running on a drift boat or taking a Jon boat into the ocean, yet people do all these things every day without incident.

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