On water, jackets are matter of life or death

Posted: Thursday, May 24, 2001

CHICAGO -- A boater who doesn't wear a life jacket is as bad as a motorist who doesn't wear a seat belt.

Both are dumb-as-a-rock behaviors that sadly can produce consequences easily avoided. Sometimes in this world laziness or carelessness carries the death penalty.

As National Safe Boating Week comes to a close, the fundamental cornerstone of the campaign is about as simple as it gets--when you head out on the water, strap on a personal flotation device. Law-enforcement personnel are told all sorts of stories about why boaters don't wear life jackets, from "it's too hot" to "they're ugly."

"A lot of times it's an expense thing," said Coast Guard Chief Dave Rowlett in Juneau. "Boating is not a cheap proposition."

Doesn't cut it. In fact no excuse is good enough. Not when 700 to 800 people die each year in recreational boating accidents. In nine out of 10 cases, the victim was not wearing a lifejacket.

"There's a fair share of idiots out there," said Rowlett. About a dozen times each year the Coast Guard has to send a boat back to the harbor because it's not equipped with required safety gear, including flares, fire extinguishers and lifejackets, Rowlett said.

In Alaska, 19 people died last year in recreational boating accidents. Three were personal watercraft operators and the remainder were in boats less than 26 feet in length. According to Coast Guard statistics, all but two died as a result of falls overboard or capsizing. The state's boating fatality rate remains the highest per capita in the nation, about 10 times the national rate. Last year the state passed a safe boating law to try to turn the stats around..The number one thing a boater can do to protect himself is to wear a life jacket," said Tom Wakolbinger, chief of Illinois Conservation Police. "Nationally statistics show that 80 percent of fatalities can be avoided."

Eighty percent! You can't blame Wakolbinger for wondering what it takes for people to get the message.

He's not alone. Anyone who motors or paddles out onto a body of water larger than the bathtub should cringe if others on the craft are ignoring common sense and cavorting unprotected. Doesn't matter if they think they're good swimmers. In Southeast Alaska the water is so cold most people can't swim for more than half an hour without a life jacket, Rowlett said. Besides keeping you afloat, life jackets provide some insulation, allow people to conserve heat and energy and can even keep them unconscious people from drowning. Bright orange, red or yellow life jackets are best, because they help rescuers spot people in the water.

"It's really, really tough trying to spot a person in the water if they're not wearing bright colors," Rowlett said.

The other thing that really helps rescuers is the EPIRB, Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon, which puts out a signal leading rescuers to within four miles of someone needing help.

"The EPIRB really and truly take the search out of search and rescue," Rowlett said. "I think most moms would feel better if their kids were wearing one of those, or their husbands."

EPIRBs can now be bought for $75 to $85, Rowlett said.

There are 37,000 registered boats in Alaska and many of their owners are not only devout believers in life jacket philosophy, they are spreading the word this week as part of the national campaign.

The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary offers boating safety courses and although there are numerous other aspects of safe boating, including good judgment, refraining from speeding and imbibing alcohol and ensuring that radios and flares are in good working order, just reminding boaters to wear life jackets is a key part of the drill. To find out about the courses call Ron at 790-4873, Ivan at 789-6911or Dale at 780-6715. Rowlett is also willing to provide boaters with educational boat checks and more information on safety gear, call 463-2366.

There are a variety of personal flotation devices, some bulkier and required on commercial vessels, but the most common kind are lightweight, orange life jackets. They are as light as kick boards and cost about $4 to $8 each. Which means they don't weigh much and are cheap. Again scratch any excuse not to stock them. Beyond that, almost every harbor in Alaska has loaner lifejackets available, Rowlett said.

A typical life jacket is draped around the neck and then cinched with a strap and snap. Takes five seconds to put it on and about five seconds longer to get used to it. Complaints about discomfort don't hold water.

If kids need more reason to wear them, the Coast Guard gives out certificates good for an ice cream cone at McDonald's to any kid they find wearing a life jacket on the water.

Living hard and fast and leaving a good-looking corpse might appeal to some. But the more levelheaded no doubt prefer the nerdy life jacket look if it means not going down with the ship.

Juneau Empire reporter Kristan Hutchison contributed to this story.

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