Preventing boat accidents with Carter Viss [interview]
29th April 2022 Jack O'Rourke
When Carter Viss was being loaded onto a stretcher by paramedics on West Palm Beach, he was fuelled with a steely resolve that he would be a survivor. Carter was struck by a 36-foot pleasure boat going more than 50 mph while snorkelling off Breakers Reef on Thanksgiving day in 2019. The accident resulted in Carter losing his right arm and suffering extensive strike injuries to his legs.
After spending over eight months in hospital and years of rehabilitation, it’s what Carter has done after his harrowing accident that has inspired many boaters and safety organisations throughout the United States.
Growing up in Denver, Colorado, Carter always had a fascination with animals and nature, but it is his passion for marine life that drew him to Florida.
“A lot of my hobbies growing up included looking for animals around my backyard. I would go explore the streams at the back of my house for any frogs or grasshoppers that were around. That was my passion as a kid,” recalls Carter.
“I got into aquarium keeping at a young age. I would see the fish at the doctor's office in the saltwater tank and I was fascinated.
Being from Denver, we were not really close to too much water. We had a few reservoirs and lakes there but not really any good boating. I only started getting into boating and fishing when I came down to Florida to pursue a career in marine biology.”
Carter began college in 2013 at Palm Beach Atlantic University to pursue his studies and was immediately infatuated with the abundance of marine life in the area, in particular The Breakers Reef, an artificial reef just out the front of The Breakers Hotel in West Palm Beach.
“It's just a short walk from the beach and really close to the water. I immediately fell in love with the area and started snorkelling and diving and trying to just get out on the water as much as I could.”
After college, he started working at Loggerhead Marinelife Center, a conservation centre that specialises in the rehabilitation of sick and injured sea turtles.
“I immediately fell in love with the place and the whole community. They do great work there, not just with sea turtles but ocean conservation in general, like beach clean-ups preventing plastics from entering the ocean and helping out other marine animals.
But seeing the sea turtles and how they're affected by boaters and fishing, opened my eyes to how much humans have an impact on our ocean. It made me passionate about protecting them. At Loggerhead, we have seen the worst of what would happen to them.
Especially with boat strikes. Most boat strikes on sea turtles are fatal. We have had a few lucky survivors, but a lot of the time it is almost impossible for some of them to make a full recovery. They would either have too much head damage, or too much carapace damage (which is the shell on their back).
We would be unable to release them back in the wild, which is really sad to see, especially just knowing that it was once a perfectly healthy sea turtle, then it was struck by a boat and it was in this condition.”
The irony is not lost on Carter that prior to his accident, he was working with sea turtles who had suffered boat strikes. At this point in his life, Carter has recounted his story countless times.
“It was Thanksgiving Day of 2019 and my friend and co-worker Andy and I went out snorkelling on The Breakers reef, a shallow reef right next to The Breakers Hotel.
It was one of my favourite spots to snorkel at the time. I had taken Andy there a few times and I've been to that reef hundreds of times since I moved down to Florida. That day on Thanksgiving was especially nice. It was perfectly flat and the waters were clear, so we were out there for about three hours. We saw sea turtles, sharks, stingrays and even a few octopi.
We had been out there for a long time so I started swimming toward the beach. We were about 200 metres off the beach at this point. When you are in the water you can hear boats coming from very far away because sound travels a lot further underwater.
So when I first noticed the sound of a motor, I didn't mind too much, but then it started to get really really loud. I looked to the right of me (which is straight north) and I saw this large hull of a boat heading straight towards me at a very significant speed so I knew I only had a few seconds.
I was immediately in a life or death situation and luckily I made the manoeuvre to rotate my body so my torso and my head were facing away from the propellers. I tried to swim as far as I could from the boat, but I couldn't get out of its way in time, so I had to brace for impact.
In the aftermath, the first thing I noticed was that my right arm was gone right past my elbow. I remember seeing the remainder of my forearm sink to the bottom of the reef. It was like a scene out of Jaws, there was blood everywhere.
I couldn't swim, not just because I lost my right arm, but because my two legs were both severely impacted by the propellers to the point where they were nearly cut in half. My friend Andy was nearby and was able to swim over to me before I was going to drown.
I remember thinking “this is it, this is the end.”
Thankfully the boat that did hit me stopped and noticed what had happened and immediately turned around and came to pick me up.”
Meanwhile, a woman named Christine Raininger was paddleboarding with friends close by and saw the whole strike happen. In another stroke of luck, just a few weeks before, she had learnt how to tie a tourniquet.
“She was able to tie tourniquets around my right arms and my two legs, which definitely saved my life because I was very close to bleeding out. I am fortunate that the boat took me straight back to the beach and the paramedics and ambulance were waiting there right on the beach.
And just like that I was off to the hospital and being put under. At the time, I did not know if I was ever gonna wake up again, or if I wake up, would I have any limbs left?”
What Carter didn't know at the time was his left wrist was significantly impacted by the propeller. During the initial surgery, the surgeons had to take a picture of his left risk because they were in such disbelief that the propeller just missed the central nerve of his hand by less than a millimetre.
It is a harrowing story, but it is a message that Carter does not mind repeating, as there are some important lessons that boaters can learn from it. There are a lot of reasons this accident occurred, and most of them were avoidable.
A major cause of boating accidents is that the vessel operator is simply distracted or not paying attention.
“The driver who hit me was too close to the beach and going way too fast in their boat so they didn't have time to see me. Once they did notice me it was too late to get out of the way in time.”
Carter has also become an advocate for improving dive flags. On the day of the accident, Carter and Andy had their dive flag up. The standard dive flag is a 12x12-inch diver down signal with a red rectangle with a diagonal white stripe through it.
The dive flag at a certain angle can get lost in the wind and make it hard to be seen by boaters.
Carter is working towards creating a standardised down flag or buoy or device that can make divers more visible and can easily alert any boater who may not be paying enough in the hope it can prevent similar accidents.
“I am pushing for changes to dive flag standards to try to make the laws in Florida. We are working towards the creation of a 3D model to be the ideal standardised divers-down device.”
His accident had a profound effect on Carter, and he was able to make it through his recovery with the belief that he could share his story to make the waterways a safer place.
“I was in the hospital initially for two months after the accident. I had lots of surgeries and the doctors didn't know if I was going to survive the first night and let alone walk again.
But the first thing I remember saying to my parents when I came to, I just told them that I can make more of a difference now than I could ever before going through this experience and surviving.
I knew I survived for a reason and the main reason would be to make positive changes in positive impacts on the ocean. That inspired me a lot through my recovery.
It was a very slow process. It really took a lot of time and repetition just getting out of bed, standing on my own again and taking those few first painful steps. Week after week, day after day, I saw small improvements and soon I was walking on my own.
I can't thank my parents enough for all they did for me. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them.”
Music played an important part in Carter’s recovery. Early on, Carter was confined to his hospital bed for the majority of the day, so just listening to music was one of the few things that could transport out of this current situation and put him in a better place. His mother is a piano teacher and Carter has been playing the piano his whole life. For Carter, music was his escape.
“I love to play classical pieces and it helps me to relax at night or just unwind after the day, and it really became a passion of mine in the past year leading up to the accident.
After the accident, obviously, a pianist losing their right hand, it's your worse nightmare. It felt like game over after that and that's what I did feel like for a while. Thankfully, after just listening to a lot more piano and hearing other musicians with one hand play, it inspired me to start playing again.
These days I feel extremely confident in my playing abilities and it feels very natural to me.”
Now that Carter has made a full recovery, he has been involved in a number of initiatives to promote boat safety in his local area.
“I began by working with the Palm Beach County Drowning Prevention Coalition, just to encourage boating safety for people who are unfamiliar with it. I have also spoken at the International Boating & Water Safety Summit through my involvement with Waves of Hope, which is an organisation that helps victims of water activity accidents.
I am always looking for more outlets to help. There is still a lot of work to be done around raising awareness of safe boating speeds. I try to encourage people to know if they're less than 300 metres from the beach, they should be going at no-wake speeds."
Carter believes there is still work to be done to provide boaters in America with adequate training and knowledge on how to operate a vessel safely.
“There are simple things boaters can do to be safer. Firstly, every driver should have at least one person always on the lookout on a boat.
Make sure they're not distracted either. Take turns being the watch person on a boat, and understand it's not a playground out there. You can’t speed whenever you want and expect there to be no consequences.
It's important to respect the rules of the water, especially as some people are only renting a boat for a day. They're only out there to have fun, and they've probably had very minimal training or knowledge about operating a boat on the water.
People need to be mindful of their surroundings out there and know the consequences of what can happen by not paying attention for a few seconds, and how it could change their life.
That's the message I want to get across to boaters – one little hiccup can cause life-changing consequences.”
Carter still has some goals to tick off, both personally and in his advocacy work.
“I really want to more to help victims of unfortunate accidents like mine by helping them get out fishing. I want to show them that even if something very unfortunate happens, you can make the best out of your situation and it's really just a matter of finding different ways to do a normal thing.
So that's kind of my goal – to really just inspire.”