Barbed Wire Fences & Other Obstructions

Question: Does barbed wire constitute a potential or a realized threat to boaters?

Answer: A search of AW's accident database does not turn up anything relevant to the words, “barb”, “wire”, or “fence”. Thus, we currently consider barbed wire a potential threat, though we are aware of numerous anecdotal stories of near misses.

The following data support the premise that there is a high chance that this “potential” threat will eventually turn to a “realized” hazard: 129 of all 342 accidents reported to AW through 1/1/2000 involved victims trapped or snagged under water (78%). Twelve of those were trapped underwater by their equipment (11%), 3 were trapped by misc. debris (including an industrial power belt), 28 involved trees while in their boats and 12 more swam into trees (8.5% and 3.5%).

For example, at one Ocoee Rodeo a contestant got pinned underwater by a small sharp object on an old bridge support and his shorts!

Any wire or linear structure across a waterway is capable of entrapping or “clothes-lining” anything moving downstream including people. The sharp nature of barbed wire increases the risk of entanglement and also presents the possibility of additional injury.

While the fencing serves a clear and understandable land management purpose, anyone who strings a barrier on a navigable or legally floatable waterway needs to be aware that not only are they endangering the public, but they are also exposing themselves to a great liability risk.

Many landowners have sought to creatively address their range management needs and the welfare of the public. They have accomplished these dual objectives by encouraging or facilitating safe navigation through:

  1. Clearly marking the wires at 4-foot intervals with bright surveying or flagging tape;
  2. Posting a “Caution Fencing” sign upstream of the wire;
  3. Building a marked fence crossing near the water for portages;
  4. Pulling fencing up to dry land at high water;
  5. Raising fencing at lease 30 inches above the water surface, to allow passage below;
  6. Installing a latch on a floating trigger that allows the fence to swing free and open “automatically” at high water;
  7. Retrieving loose wire that has washed into the river channel; and
  8. Only partially extending fencing 10 feet into a river.

These actions will help boaters avoid potentially dangerous situations, and will help landowners by reducing snags or line felling by passing boaters. Boaters can also help by:

  1. Not cutting fences that block safe navigation;
  2. Portaging fences;
  3. Closing fences after opening them; and
  4. Meeting with landowners to cordially discuss concerns before there is a life-threatening problem.
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