Known for its crystalline lakes and natural beauty, Alberta is a haven for recreational boaters. However, environmental hazards, icy water, and inexperienced operators can cause severe accidents and catastrophic injuries.

Cuming & Gillespie LLP recently represented a young man who sustained serious injuries in a watercraft accident. The cause of the accident was inexperienced operator error. The firm resolved the claim for the plaintiff out-of-court for a significant seven-figure amount.

Common Causes of Watercraft Accidents & Injuries

Most causes of watercraft accidents and injuries in Canada are preventable through proper education, preparation, and prevention. Common causes include:

  • Alcohol or drug use: as with cars and other motor vehicles in Canada, it is illegal to operate a watercraft under the influence of alcohol or other substances.
  • Lack of safety equipment: The Marine Liability Act of Canada requires operators to have specific safety equipment on board, depending on the type of craft. This can include a fire extinguisher, flares, anchor, navigational lights, bailing device, axe, passive radar reflector, sound-signalling device, and magnetic compass.
  • Failing to wear a lifejacket: Most drowning deaths can be avoided by wearing a lifejacket or personal floatation device (PFD), as opposed to just having them present on the watercraft. In some jurisdictions, it is mandatory to wear a lifejacket or PFD at all times while on the water. For example, failing to wear a lifejacket or PFD while boating on Calgary’s waterways carries a mandatory court appearance and a fine of up to $500.
  • Failing to prepare for the elements: Operators should prepare for a trip on their watercraft by checking the weather forecast and ensuring they have all equipment needed. Albertans can visit the provincial government’s website to check current flow rates throughout the province’s river basins.

Recreational Watercraft Accident & Injury Terms

To help navigate the area of recreational watercraft safety, accidents, and injuries, we have set out some common terminology below.

Body of Water

Watercraft accidents occur in all types of bodies of water in Canada, but most commonly in lakes. Other bodies of water where accidents occur are ponds, reservoirs, rivers, and oceans. 


A watercraft becomes capsized when it is overturned in the water.

Cold Water Shock

Falling into a body of water that is colder than 20 degrees celsius puts a person at risk of going into shock. Cold water shock can severely reduce a person’s ability to swim, stay above the water’s surface, and breathe.


Watercraft collisions occur when a craft strikes or is struck by another watercraft, a person (e.g. a swimmer, tuber, or waterskier), or a fixed object (e.g. a rock, log, sandbar, or dock).


Currents are an environmental factor contributing to many drowning deaths in Canada. Currents can be natural or caused by manmade structures such as dam spillways. Other forms of moving water that pose a risk during immersion are rapids, waves, whitewater, waterfalls, tides, rip/rip currents, and undertow.


Hypothermia (or “exposure”) occurs when a person’s body loses more heat than it can produce. A person is considered to have hypothermia when their internal body temperature drops below 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). Hypothermia causes more immersion deaths than drowning as wet clothing rapidly absorbs body heat. Further, a person who is or has been immersed in water becomes chilled quickly as air moves over their wet clothes or skin.


The term “immersion” refers to a person being partially or fully underwater. 

Immersion Death

Health and safety groups, such as the Canadian Red Cross, often use the term “immersion death” to refer to death by drowning or death by immersion hypothermia (i.e. hypothermia caused by being in the water).


Lifejackets are floatation devices worn around the neck and strapped to the front of a watercraft passenger or operator. They are designed to turn the wearer to a face-up position, even if they are unconscious, to prevent drowning. Lifejackets generally offer more protection than personal floatation devices (PFDs) but are less comfortable for constant wear.


When a person falls or is thrown overboard, they end up in the water while the board remains upright and intact.

Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs)

Personal floatation devices are buoyant devices worn by watercraft passengers and operators. The most common style of PFD is a vest that clips across the wearer’s chest. Although PFDs are more comfortable for constant wear than traditional life jackets, they are less effective at keeping a person afloat or turning an unconscious person over in the water. 

Personal Watercraft (PWC)

Personal watercraft (PWC) are small recreational watercraft in which the operator sits, stands or kneels on the vessel instead of sitting inside of it (as with a boat). PWC are usually powered by inboard jet drives. The two most popular brands of PWC in Canada are Sea-Doo and Jet Ski.

Pleasure Craft Operator Card / Boating License

Pleasure Craft Operator Cards are the boating licenses required by all Canadian operators of any type of pleasure craft equipped with a motor, including personal watercraft (PWC). These licenses are issued by the federal government after the applicants demonstrate a basic understanding of boating safety requirements.


Powerboats are boats propelled primarily by a motor of any type, as opposed to boats propelled by human or wind power (e.g. canoes, kayaks, sailboats, paddleboards, etc.).

Recreational Watercraft / Pleasure Craft

Recreational watercraft or pleasure crafts are used for personal enjoyment, as opposed to those used for commercial or rescue purposes.


The term “swamped” refers to a situation where a watercraft takes on water.

Trauma Death

Trauma deaths are those caused by a blunt or penetrating injury. These are often the result serious injuries caused by a watercraft collision, such as head or spinal injuries, traumatic brain injuries, lacerations, and fractures.

Cuming & Gillespie LLP: Leading Calgary Recreational Boating Accident Lawyers

If you have been injured in a boating or watercraft accident, it is essential to contact an experienced personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. Hiring a lawyer knowledgeable about these types of accidents helps maximize your potential compensation.
At Cuming & Gillespie LLP, we look at your recreational boating accident case from all angles and determine the best approach to take. We help recover the compensation you deserve so you can focus on healing and having the best quality of life possible. To contact a member of our award-winning team of personal injury lawyers in Calgary, reach out online or call 403-571-0555.