On a Wednesday afternoon in August, 9-year-old Kaden Frederick sat on the bow of a rented pontoon boat, his legs dangling in the water as he and his family motored up a bay near Ocean City.
Suddenly, according to police, came screams of “Stop the boat!”
Kaden had fallen off. Likely before the person at the controls could react, police said, the pontoon boat had run him over. The blades of the motor’s propeller inflicted massive, fatal injuries.
“We’re devastated and heartbroken,” said Kaden’s aunt, Jeneen Ryans. “It’s something we won’t get over.”
The New Jersey boy’s accident, a scene that even veteran police officials described as horrific, hit hard for the officers who patrol Maryland’s waterways.
“I don’t want this to ever. Happen. Again. To anybody,” said Sgt. Bob Ford, supervisor for the Maryland Natural Resources Police’s safety division. “This was a 9-year-old child with his family on there, and he’s gone. It’s hard, definitely hard.”
The agency is leading the charge for Maryland to specifically prohibit “bow riding” — sitting on the front of a boat with legs hanging over — rather than continuing to cite people for operating a boat in a “negligent” or “reckless” manner. A regulation proposed by police and under consideration by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources would explicitly ban bow riding. The penalty has not been determined, an agency spokesman said.
On Wednesday, Maryland Natural Resources Police said they had filed five charges against the owner of the boat in which Kaden was riding, including renting a vessel without required equipment.
Kaden’s death “is absolutely the motivation” behind trying to explicitly ban bow riding, said Maryland Sen. James N. Mathias Jr. (D-Somerset), a former mayor of Ocean City.
The idea, police say, is for officers to stop boaters before anyone riding on the bow, back of the boat or atop the sides gets hurt. Banning the practice explicitly, police say, would make it easier to educate the public, particularly those who challenge officers with, “Show me where it says bow riding is illegal.” Police say some judges throw out the negligence citations for bow riding, ruling that prosecutors cannot prove negligence if no one was hurt.
Nationwide, the number of serious accidents that involved someone standing or sitting on the front, back or side of a boat has fluctuated between 12 and 53 annually since 2004, according to U.S. Coast Guard figures. In 2015, the most recent statistics available, there were seven deaths and 19 injuries reported.
Those numbers pale in comparison with other causes of serious accidents, such as boat operators who were under the influence of alcohol or were inattentive or inexperienced. But police say they want to target bow riding because such accidents are relatively easy to prevent and typically have disastrous outcomes, with someone being killed or badly maimed. Moreover, officers say, many of those they see sitting on the bows are children.
When someone falls off the bow of a motorized boat, police say, they end up directly in the path of the propeller, leading to grisly outcomes. They can be particularly devastating, officers say, because friends or family members are often at the controls.
Police say most boat operators who allow people to ride on the bow are unaware of the dangers. People do not realize that even a relatively slow-traveling boat can run over someone who falls off the front within a second — before the boat operator can shift into neutral, let alone stop.
“It’s just inherently dangerous,” said Candy Thomson, spokeswoman for the Maryland Natural Resources Police. “No one in their right mind would sit on the hood of a car doing 20 miles per hour, yet people do it on boats all the time.”
At least 14 states, including Virginia, explicitly prohibit bow riding, according to a recent survey by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA). The numbers are likely higher because many states did not respond to the survey. The District does not specifically prohibit bow riding, but D.C. police say they issue $100 citations for it under prohibitions against operating a boat negligently.
Boating legislation can be challenging to get passed, particularly in states where boating and water sports are a big part of the tourism and recreational economy, safety advocates say. The boating industry, and boaters themselves, often push back against what they see as impingements on their boating experiences.
“People look at boating as the ultimate free experience, that freedom of getting out on the water,” said John Fetterman, a retired deputy chief of the Maine Marine Patrol and now NASBLA’s deputy executive director. “You get a lot of pushback nationally when you talk about enhancing boat safety and laws.”
In Maryland, the proposed regulation banning bow riding has not faced vocal opposition. A state boating advisory committee, which includes boat owners, approved the idea in December. Under the regulation, no one would be allowed to sit on the front, back or atop the side walls of a moving, motorized boat with their legs outside the boat or in an “otherwise dangerous manner.” Police say they hope to have a rule in effect and a public-education campaign about the dangers of bow riding underway before Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the boating season.
Kaden’s accident remains under investigation, but police have filed charges against Tyler Barnes, 33, who owns OC Watersports. The corporation operates Under the Bridge Watersports in Ocean City, where Kaden’s family rented the pontoon boat.
Barnes faces five charges, including renting a vessel without required equipment, renting a vessel without a plate showing the boat’s maximum capacity and failing to keep records for law enforcement agencies, police said Wednesday. The pontoon boat was short two life jackets, and there were 17 people aboard, even though it had a maximum capacity of 15, police said. Each charge carries a fine ranging from $55 to $320.
Barnes, who police said was served paperwork on the charges Tuesday, did not return an email or messages left Wednesday on his cellphone.
The operator of the boat, Dustin D. Healey of Jackson, N.J., was not charged, police said, because a District Court commissioner did not find probable cause.
Three other people were sitting with the child on the front of the boat when he fell in, according to police. People on the boat told police it was going about “half-speed” at the time.
Ryans, who set up a GoFundMe page for Kaden’s family, said her nephew was a “happy go lucky kid” who loved football, his family and friends.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.