Hunter Bland: A Terrible Boating Accident to Leading Boating Safety Advocate
PartVu Xchange Talks Boating host Jason Bradstreet spoke with Hunter Bland, a veteran bass fishing angler with college and professional experience.
Hunter’s widely recognized as a leading advocate for boating safety. Hunter and his college partner had a highly publicized boating accident caught live on their GoPro. The incident motivated Hunter to speak out about his experience and propelled him to the forefront of the boating safety community.
Hunter now serves in a wide variety of industry and government-appointed roles, including a recent appointment by Governor Ron Desantis to the Florida Boating Advisory Council. He is also a National Safe Boating Council Member and is helping to develop the National Water Safety Action plan.
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Can you tell us about your fishing background and experience on the water?
Hunter: I was born and raised in Ocala, Florida. Growing up, my big focus was baseball. I had the opportunity to play in college but suffered a hamstring injury that ended that dream. It was evident that God was closing the door on the chapter of my life.
After my baseball career was over, I became interested in fishing and quickly realized that college fishing was growing in popularity. One thing led to another, and I ended up fishing for the University of Florida Bass Fishing team. I assumed the role of secretary for our club, which evolved into my position as club president.
My experience on the team opened many doors for me, including industry-wide roles as a safety ambassador. It’s been amazing to see how we have plans in our minds of what life should be like, and God’s plan is far superior to what we can imagine.
What was the genesis of your involvement in the industry as a boating safety advocate?
Hunter: I was at a tournament at Lake Seminole in Bainbridge, Georgia, on January 17, 2017. My partner and I took off at the start of the tournament. We were about two miles down the river when we experienced complete failure in our hydraulic steering system at fifty-five miles per hour. It suddenly ejected us from the boat.
Thankfully, I was wearing my life jacket and the engine cutoff device, so the motor shut off immediately. Luckily, we walked away alive, but needless to say, things could have been much worse.
Incredibly, we caught the footage on a GoPro. The fact that our GoPro was on was atypical. The morning of the launch, my partner and I discussed saving the GoPro for later in the day but decided to keep it on during takeoff. Without that footage, no one would have believed what happened to us. We had clipped the GoPro to a pedestal seat in the back of the boat, and it never even moved. It was almost divine intervention that we caught it all on camera.
After the event, I was terrified and filled with emotion. The adrenaline overwhelmed me. I never wanted to get in a boat again. However, the key takeaway was that I was bound and determined to fulfill a new mission of sharing my story to save future lives.
One thing led to another, and I was asked to film a public service announcement for the National Safety Council. I also attended an international boating and safety conference. All of this happened while I was trying to finish up my senior year of college. The incident went viral, so I fielded phone calls from multiple news outlets like FOX, CNN, and others.
In the public service announcement that I was in, there was a Yamaha engine in the background. I remember thanking Yamaha for supporting the National Safe Boating Council during that time. A couple of weeks later, I received a call from David Litner, who has become a lifelong friend. I owe much of my career to him because he saw something in me early on.
When he first called me, he commented on my stance on boating safety. I’ll never forget him mentioning that I could have hired the best lawyers on the planet to sue anyone I could but instead chose to educate as many people as possible about water safety. He asked about my future in the industry, so I drafted a proposal that included my plans to use my story to reach anglers about safety. Yamaha accepted my proposal to work with them without hesitation, and we’ve been rolling ever since.
Can you tell us about the National Boating Safety Award that you received?
Hunter: I’d like to preface my answer with a disclaimer: it’s never about the awards. If I change a life and impact someone else with lifesaving information and tips, I’m totally satisfied with the outcome. So, accolades and awards are a secondary benefit.
When I started the advocacy journey, I struggled with many self-doubts. I constantly questioned myself in terms of my effectiveness. I asked myself if I was really having an impact.
Many people encouraged me to apply for this particular award and received help from Yamaha to put together my application package. As a result, we won the inaugural award for best media and marketing practices for 2019. That award helped validate my efforts and encouraged me to continue my mission with a renewed sense of purpose and confidence.
What is your role with Mustang as a Survival Ambassador?
Hunter: My partner and I were both wearing Mustang life jackets during the accident. Connor was wearing one of their hydrostatic life jackets, so it was water pressure activated. I was wearing one that was manually inflatable, which is not the ideal option for someone running fifty-five miles per hour in a boat.
Once ejected from the boat, I became trapped under the hull but eventually popped out. Connor, who was, thankfully, on a state championship swim team, swam to me and pulled my life jacket cord right away, which caused it to inflate. After that, we were both able to board the boat safely.
After the incident, Mustang reached me through a series of DMs and emails to discuss the accident. That correspondence sparked a relationship with Mustang that lasts to this day.
Now, I have the opportunity to be at their promotional events, answer any questions about lifejackets, and promote a product I believe in. I’m indebted to Mustang because they played a huge role in my lifesaving story.
Florida Governor Ron Desantis recently appointed you to a new position. Can you tell us more about that?
Hunter: He appointed me to a three-year term with the Boating Advisory Council in Florida. The council comprises a diverse group representing a wide range of interests and expertise.
The role affords me the opportunity to affect change in Florida regarding safety, recreation, conservation, and other issues. For the next three years, I will be able to attend meetings with Florida Fish and Wildlife, the Boating Advisory Council, and other organizations to discuss important conservation issues and help make boating in Florida safer.
How are you contributing to the development of the National Water Safety Action Plan?
Hunter: I received an email one day from Chris Stec, who does excellent work with the American Canoe Association. He has been instrumental in promoting water safety and is on the board of the National Safety Council.
Many countries have a national water safety plan established and promoted by their national governments. But, at that time, the United States had never had one.
They asked me to be a part of the life jacket working group to help develop that portion of the plan. I spent about a year and a half attending conference calls and meetings to create drafts for the national plan. The program is forthcoming but should be released to the public in the very near future.
How are you involved as an ambassador for the National Safe Boating Council?
Hunter: The National Safe Boating Council is a one-stop shop for safe boating practices. They provide information and establish campaigns on everything from life jacket usage to filing float plans. I’ve been able to work with them in various ways to promote safety on the water. It has been an amazing experience and a powerful platform to encourage others to engage in practices that may save their lives.
One day, Peg Phillips, the Executive Director of the National Safe Boating Council, called and brought something to my attention. I was raised from childhood to always wear an engine cutoff device and a life jacket. However, I used to take my life jacket off once I turned off my big engine. On the call from Peg, she encouraged me to strongly consider leaving it on throughout the day as a best practice and means of modeling the safest way to be on a boat for others that might see me live, on social media, or on camera.
Now, I exclusively wear a Mustang Elite 28 inflatable life jacket, so I keep it on all day without even thinking about it. Sometimes, I’m fishing in rough water or near large boat wakes, so having a life jacket on all day makes sense in case I fall overboard unexpectedly.
What are the top two or three priorities to consider to stay safe on the water?
Hunter: First and foremost, life jackets are essential without question. In the simplest terms, life jackets won’t help unless they’re worn and ready to use. In an emergency, you likely won’t have time to reach into a storage compartment, grab a life jacket, put it on, buckle it up, and deploy it safely. The safest course of action is to have it on at all times.
Using an engine cutoff device is also crucial to survival in the event of an accident. If you’re involved with something like a sudden impact or another emergency, it’s critical that you are linked properly to your engine cutoff device so the motor stops running immediately.
Additionally, filing a float plan with a friend, neighbor, or relative is vital to the safety puzzle. Before you leave for the day, let someone know your departure and return timing and your thoughts on any stops for fishing or recreation while on the water. Include a plan to communicate with your contact upon returning to the boat ramp so they know you’re safe. If they don’t hear from you by a specific time, tell them they should contact someone for help.
Finally, leave the booze on the bank. Driving a boat while under the influence is extremely dangerous. A mistake on the water hurts yourself and puts others in danger. Driving while under the influence could seriously jeopardize your safety on the water.
What’s on the horizon for your fishing and career?
Hunter: I plan to fish three Bass Opens this year while continuing to work on my off-the-water career. I work with my younger brother, a videographer which allows us to collaborate on important projects. My mom passed away in 2019, and we always told her that our dream was to work together by putting our passions together, so it’s incredible to see that come to fruition.
We’re involved in quite a few safety projects together, which allows us to use our platform to help others understand the importance of staying safe on the water. We’re both very busy with content creation and love being able to do some of it together.
The bottom line is that I feel truly blessed to have the opportunity to serve the industry as a safety advocate. Although the accident wasn’t something I would ever want to go through again, it’s been a catalyst for an exciting and fulfilling career.
For more information on water safety, check out Safeboatingcampaign.com. You can also follow Hunter’s career and pro-fishing journey on Instagram or Facebook. Hunter frequently posts great tips about boating safety, so follow him for regular updates and information.
In addition, Hunter works with many excellent organizations and companies that promote safety, including Yamaha Safe Boating, Mustang Survival, and the National Safe Boating Council.
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