Lifeline: Drowning and Life Jackets

Lifeline: Drowning and Life Jackets Jan 12, 2021

The message does not seem to be getting through – life jackets save lives.

By Mark King

Pick up any boating publication, and you will soon come across information on life jackets and personal flotation devices (PFDs). Over the years, in fact, many thousands of words have been written about boating safety and the importance of wearing life jackets. Yet the message simply does not seem to be getting through – life jackets save lives.

So, here are a few more words on the subject.

According to the latest drowning report from the Canadian Red Cross, 87% of Canada’s drowning victims in boating incidents from 2019 were not wearing life jackets. 36% percent of drowning victims in boats had consumed alcohol and 34% were alone.
While preparing to write this column, I noted that COVID-19 numbers were once again on the rise; it appeared that most, if not all, boat shows were going to be cancelled this winter. Trips to warmer climates – to frolic on the beach or, perhaps, boat – would also need to be abandoned. To satisfy your winter craving for all things boating, then, I thought now would be a good time to review the use of life jackets and PFDs on your own vessel. 
We all know, of course, that there must be one life jacket or PFD onboard – each properly sized – for every person on your boat. They must be readily accessible, and you should show your guests how to don their own in preparation of potential need. Except in extreme circumstances, boating accidents and the need for life jackets are unpredictable. You never know when you’ll truly require them.
If you’ve watched many YouTube videos, you may have come across footage of boaters battling waves and confused waters at Baker’s Haulover Inlet in Florida. Very few wear life jackets. It’s like watching a hockey game and waiting for the fight to start: sooner or later, people will be thrown overboard. In their circumstances, and with people and cameras all around, they are quickly rescued. In most other examples, however, landing in the water does not end well. You cannot predict when it will happen, and you will most likely not be seen by others close to shore.  
Maybe the boat hit something. Maybe it made a sudden change in direction. Maybe there was a weather-related occurrence, or maybe there was a wave. Standing up and falling overboard, too, is a common path to drowning. While there are as many circumstances as there are victims, there is but one ultimate cause: refusing to wear a life jacket or PFD. 

So why don’t we wear them?

The number one reason, of course, is simply that boaters doubt they will need one today. You have made it back to shore in the past without one, so why would today be any different? The weather’s fine, and the cruise will be short, close to shore, and may just involve anchoring or a bit of swimming.
The problem, of course, is that when and where you will need a flotation device are unpredictable. You cannot be 100% sure that you will not need a flotation device today. Maybe you won’t, but what if you do? 
The second excuse most often heard is the idea that wearing a life jacket is bulky and looks silly or “uncool”. Think about how you will look if you don’t make it back, and consider what this will mean for others in your life. How uncool will it be for people to relate the details of your demise? If you are worried about the bulk of a life jacket or PFD, consider getting an inflatable for everyone on board. An inflatable is a little more expensive but, worn like a light vest, is not bulky. As a bonus, inflatables provide more flotation than a regular jacket or PFD once inflated. 
Consider buying those which inflate automatically when they hit the water. If you go overboard while unconscious, then, the inflatable will keep your head above water so you do not drown. For those who don’t think they need one because they boat close to shore, note that this is exactly where most drownings take place. No matter your strength as a swimmer, there are other factors that can weigh against your safe passage to shore: some risks include injury, water temperature, and simple fatigue. There are also the fatalists who, knowing that they can’t swim, reason that they will probably drown in an accident, anyway. Really? If they wear a life jacket, they could live to instead tell the tale.
There are other excuses, and the answer is, always, to wear a life jacket. Drowning statistics continue to show that most victims do not wear a flotation device. Don’t be counted in this column. Review your inventory and start wearing your flotation device!  

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