By Craig Setzer

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Florida, home to beautiful beaches and waterways, has the unwanted distinction of ranking No. 1 nationwide in both recreational boating accidents and deaths on the water, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

There are 136,000 recreational boats registered in Miami-Dade, Broward and the Florida Keys which makes some days on the water packed and potentially dangerous.

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Just ask the family and friends of 20-year-old college student Monica Burguera, a Florida International University student who was killed in a 2006 Columbus Day weekend crash.

“She and her friends rented a boat like many of us do, went out to the regatta, like so many of us do,” recalled Richard Estrella, a family friend.

When Monica and her friends were heading back to the marina after sunset, her boat broke down and left them drifting and right in the path of danger.

“The boat hit Monica’s boat right through the middle and Monica was killed instantly by the propellers, and another young man was killed Noel [James Noel Pou.] So, two lives were lost senselessly,” said Estrella.

Monica’s family and close friends were heartbroken and decided to act.

“We were all severely hurt by this, we were all saddened and we all wanted to do something, so we said, ‘Let’s put classes together and offer them for free.’”

They created the Monica Burguera Foundation and partnered with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary to host boating safety courses.

The Estrellas offer up their business location at Estrella Insurance and sponsor classes.  The six-hour course is required to operate a motor vessel if you were born after January 1, 1988 but is open to anyone seeking basic safety information.

Everyone learns something in this class, which is led by dedicated volunteers of the Auxiliary.

The course covers important basics such as preparing your boat for launching, rules of the ‘road’, what to do in case of emergencies, and required equipment to have on board as a recreational boater. They go over filing a float plan, which is alerting someone on land where you’ll be and when you’ll return, as well as required safety equipment.

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“Just taking that six-hour class, even though it’s not hands on, makes you 80 percent less likely of getting in a boating accident,” said Mark Chiappone, US Coast Guard Auxiliary Division 6 Vice Commander.

“You look at fatalities what’s the number one reason why people die out here? They drown. Usually in 10 to 15 feet of water and five to six feet of being saved, and the reason they drowned is they didn’t have their life jacket on.  You have to have the number of life jackets for the number persons that you have on board, they have to be the right size and fit, they have to be in good and serviceable condition. You must also have a throwable floatation device as well, ” Chiappone states.

Other mandatory equipment includes a marine fire extinguisher and flares, or flare gun, in event of emergency. As for preventing accidents –  alertness is key- the number one cause is a distracted driver.

“Accidents happen because the person at the helm, is basically steering the boat, is not paying attention. Alcohol of course can be a contributing factor  but its people not paying attention,” Chiappone said. “Besides operator inattention, people are going too fast, not knowing where they are going, or when to yield.”

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To date nearly 8,000 people have taken the course and the Estrella’s continue to create awareness and champion this cause to save lives. They host yearly events like a golf tournament, a fishing tournament, and a gala, with the exception of 2020 due to COVID-19.

They will never forget Monica and encourage all boaters to take the course.

“It is six hours that could possibly save your life, save someone else’s life,” said Estrella.

Click here for more information on the Monica Burguera Foundation.

Click here for more information on boating safety, vessel safety checks, or to register for a Boating Safety Course.

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Craig Setzer