My turn: How to die in a boat in Alaska

According to U.S. boating statistics, Alaskans die in boats at four times the national average

Posted: Thursday, June 19, 2008

If you want to have a fatal boating accident, Alaska is the place to be.

According to the national boating fatality statistics, Alaskans die in boats at four times the national average. If you want to maintain our state's "leadership," you can dramatically increase the odds of having your own fatality by including as many of the following components in your boat trip:

• Use an open skiff less then 26 feet in length.

• Overload the boat with as many people as possible and have them stand up in the boat and drink alcohol.

• Have the boat operated by a male, 18-40, who knows it all, and thinks boat operation is like driving a car only easier because there are no silly traffic control signs or cops to bother with. Make sure he has lots to drink.

• Do not tell anyone where you are going or when you will return. Don't check the weather and/or tides. Do not protect yourself from cold, wet conditions.

• Do not wear lifejackets (technically called personal flotation devices).

• Do not take tools, spare parts, extra fuel, a marine radio, bailing can, paddles, maps, an emergency position locator, or hull patching supplies.

• Make a sudden maneuver or hit a rock, sandbar, or log so that all or most of the passengers are thrown to one side of the boat and/or into the water.

• Do not take any boating safety classes or read anything about boating safety.

• Do not learn about cold water immersion and its dramatic effects on people in the water at our latitudes. Don't dress for it and don't learn how to rescue someone or treat them for hypothermia.

• Do not pay attention to what is happening with wind, waves, other boats, and do not learn about the safety equipment on your boat.

• Smoke around gasoline fumes and spill gasoline every time you get a chance.

There is some good news. Overall, our boating accident rate is down and fewer people are dying in boats annually. Commercial fishing has seen the most dynamic reduction in fatalities. Some of this comes from the federal commercial vessel regulations that came from the loss of the FV Western Sea in Marmot Bay, Kodiak, some 20 years ago.

Now commercial vessels carry survival suits, automatically deploying rafts, emergency locator beacons, flares etc. In addition, the skipper must conduct man overboard and safety drills and stability tests when the vessel is modified.

The Alaska Boating Safety Council, the Coast Guard and the Coast Guard Auxiliary have put immense effort in to "boating safety education," vessel inspections, and the very useful "Kids Don't Float" program. The latter has boxes of child-size life jackets available at most boat docks and many boat launch sites.

We are now without excuse in equipping our kids with life jackets before we put them in the boat. Amazingly, vandals and thieves have not stolen many of these life jackets. There has been a significant reduction in child fatalities traceable to more kids wearing their life jackets. If you tell kids to wear their life jackets on a boat, they will do it. It's the adult males who always think they know better or don't want to be bothered.

Technology is helping. Personal floatation devices are now available that are easy to wear and work in. I lived on a boat as a child and I thought a life jacket was part of my body. My mother put it on me in the morning and it was the last thing I took off at night.

That was a good plan because a local fireboat skipper used to give me a quarter to walk the top of the bull rails (dock rails) and/or wet my pants. I had many "accidents" of both types and made some good money. He and my mother had a stormy relationship that she expressed in remarkably "colorful" ways.

In Alaska, boats are a magic carpet to extraordinary scenery and the best fishing in the world. With a little forethought and equipment, it can also be safer then driving in a car.

Be smart, be safe.

• Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, is a licensed captain and serves on the governor's Boating Safety Council. He lived on boats as a child. He fished commercially for 25 years, and now operates a charter boat out of Whittier.

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