Whether you’re an experienced sailboat skipper or a weekend warrior with a motorboat, safety on the water is no joke. Small vessel regulations clearly define how to operate crafts in as safe a manner as possible. But which type of craft is safer to operate in the first place? Sailboat, or motorboat?

Motorboats are a somewhat modern invention, having been around for only a little over 130 years. Sailboats, on the other hand, have been around for over 3,300 years.

So which one is safer? Before we can say for sure, let’s have a look at some related facts.

Annual Boating Accidents

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Boating safety is paramount when on the water. Whether paddling across a lake on a paddle boat or blue water cruising in a sailboat, safety should come first. Before even leaving the dock, all passengers should be made fully aware of small vessel safety regulations.

Don’t think it’s that big of a deal? Well, in that case, maybe the following statistics will help shed some light on the seriousness of proper boating safety.

During 2015, there were 4,158 boating accidents recorded by the US Coast Guard. These accidents resulted in over 2,600 injuries, as well as 626 deaths and a whopping $42 million in damages to property.

Nearly half of the boating accidents in 2015 happened on open motorboats, approximately 20 percent on personal watercraft, and another 17 percent on cabin motorboats.

Approximately 76 percent of boating fatalities in 2015 were by drowning, of which eight out of ten victims were not wearing a life jacket. A whopping 71 percent of total boating deaths happened on boats where the operator wasn’t instructed on boating safety. Only 15 percent of these accidents occurred on crafts where the operator had received proper boating safety instruction. Alcohol usage alone accounted for 17 percent of all boating deaths in 2015.

As far as the boating deaths mentioned above go, 46 percent of them happened on open motorboats. Approximately 23 percent of the deaths occurred with kayaks and canoes.

In 2016, there were 2,903 injuries and 701 deaths counted. In 2017, there were 2,629 injuries and 658 deaths recorded. These numbers rise and fall each year. However, they have slowly decreased over the past two decades. Proof that enforcing proper boating safety saves lives.

Now let’s have a closer look at the differences between a sailboat and a motorboat.

Sailboat or Motorboat

There are a lot of differences between sailboats and motorboats. The most noticeable difference is that a motorboat relies on an engine to propel it through the water, while a sailboat relies on a sail and the wind to push it along. However, many sailboats are also equipped with engines too, just in case their mast or sails are damaged.

Each type of craft has its pros and cons, though when it comes right down to it, with the right amount of skill, either one can be operated safely. Likewise, both are extremely risky to run without proper knowledge and experience.

So, which one is safer? To discover the most accurate answer, we’ll have to break down a few more factors in the sections below.


Sailboats

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Owning a sailboat is the dream of water-lovers around the world, and despite popular consensus, they aren’t nearly as expensive as you may think. The average cost of a sailboat is hard to figure, however, as they come in so many shapes and sizes.

From cutters to catboats, a sailboat can be as little as 10 feet and as long as 100 feet. For a first time purchase, you can expect to pay anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 on a small sailboat. However, those with a larger budget can spend millions on a large luxury sailboat. Here’s a list of some of the most expensive sailboats in the world.

Anyhow, let's get back to the topic of safety. Here are a few of the most significant pros and cons associated with sailboat safety.

PROS
  • More massive deck to move around than motorboats.
  • More storage space for storing safety equipment.
  • Require more than one person to operate the craft, which means more experienced sailors on board.
  • More functional with jacklines and safety harnesses than motorboats.
  • Move at slower speeds than motorboats, posing less chance of collisions with other crafts.
CONS
  • Hatches, booms, and lines pose a potential hazard to passengers and crew.
  • May become stranded if the mast or sails get damaged, and the craft has no backup engine.
  • Require a higher level of experience to operate optimally, leaving room for mistakes by less experienced operators.

So, there you have it. I think it’s safe to say the pros of sailboat safety seemingly outweigh the cons. Now, let's see about motorboats.


Motorboats

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Motorboats are a bit more versatile than a traditional sailboat. They are also the most owned boats by American families. The price of the average motorboat, with an inboard or outboard motor, runs around $20,000 to $30,000. So, there isn’t much difference in costs when it comes to sailboats and motorboats.

When it comes to safety, motorboat operators have a bit more to worry about than other recreational boaters. Motorboat operators are responsible for roughly half of the boating accidents in the United States every year. A fact that is due in part to the extra speed and power produced by the powerful motors that propel the crafts.

Here are a few of the most significant pros and cons concerning motorboat safety.

PROS
  • With more speed comes superior maneuverability, allowing you time to adjust to in-the-water hazards
  • Require less work to operate, which equates to more time for practicing proper safety
CONS
  • The transoms are either wide open or cut low, allowing for flooding in choppy waters.
  • The engine may break down at sea, leaving the boat dead in the water
  • Due to the high speeds and excessive movement of motorboats, loose and corroded wires may occur, leading to additional issues
  • The loud noise of the motors can make it hard to hear, and this can lead to many dangerous of situations
  • The decks of cockpits are not watertight, allowing for dangerous flooding.
  • Many motorboats skim the top of the water, which means they are much less stable than a standard sailboat in lousy weather and high waves
  • Carrying extra fuel can result in dangerous spills, which is a fire hazard
  • There are holes in the liners due to control cables, allowing for the entry of water.
  • Outboard motorboats are incredibly stern heavy, which can be dangerous in less than ideal weather
  • Twin engine motorboats require both motors for steering, and if one goes down, you’re in a world of trouble
  • Cause more damage than any other type of boat to marine life and the environment, such as the erosion of river banks and coastlines

I don’t think the answer could be any more evident than the list of pros and cons above. Operating a motorboat indeed seems to contain quite a few more potential dangers than operating a sailboat.


Boating Safety Checklist

boating safety checklist

Regardless if you’re operating a sailboat or a motorboat, however, there are several safety protocols to follow. Taking these steps is not just part of the law. They also ensure the safety of everyone onboard your craft, as well as those occupying the water near your craft.


Basic safety

  • Make sure that your craft is equipped with enough personal floatation devices, or life jackets, for everyone onboard.
  • Avoid operating your craft while under the influence of alcohol, narcotics, or barbiturates
  • Know where your safety equipment is at all times
  • Understand that crafts fitted with motors must stay clear of non-powered crafts
  • Understand that you are responsible for the wake and wash created by your boat and its effects
  • If involved in an accident, stop, offer assistance, and give your identity to the other affected parties

Operations

  • Understand how to responsibly operate your craft, including respectfully sharing waterways with others involved in water-related activities
  • Be aware of the maximum weight capacity of your craft, including the maximum number of passengers allowed on board
  • Be aware of the proper weight distribution techniques to be used while operating your craft
  • Understand the proper procedure for starting and stopping the engine on your craft
  • Make sure that there are no people in the water near your craft before starting the motor
  • Know how to operate the throttle and gear-shift lever of your craft properly
  • Understand where and how to use the ignition cutoff switch on your craft
  • Be aware of how to properly depart and approach docks safely
  • Be aware of how to react to grounding, capsizing, and re-boarding situation

Local conditions

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  • Keep a proper lookout at all times for changes to weather conditions, navigational hazards, and other crafts
  • Be aware of the local navigational aids, local hazards, and local regulations in areas where you are operating your craft

Failing to follow these safety regulations can result in being ticketed or fined by local or federal authorities.

And The Winner Is...

After careful consideration, I think it would be an injustice to promote the idea that a motorboat is even remotely as safe as a sailboat. So, full sails ahead! A sailboat is the undoubtedly the more reliable of the two types of boats.

Regardless of which type of boat you own, or are interested in purchasing, keep in mind that you are the primary safety net for yourself and your passengers. Before you ever leave the dock, you need to be fully aware of just how vital it is to follow safety regulations, carry the proper emergency gear, and make sure all passengers have education in basic boating safety.

Do you own a sailboat or motorboat? How do you feel about our conclusion? Let us know in the comments below!

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