It's hard to get out of Hoonah's harbor without a life jacket. Harbormaster Paul Dybdahl has been known to chase down boaters and hand them the blue and yellow float jackets from a stash of loaners.
Many coastal cities loan out life jackets, but Dybdahl's zealous enforcement of the program stands out, said Kathy O'Gara, injury prevention specialist at Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, who nominated Dybdahl for a National Water Safety Congress award. Dybdahl was given the Award of Merit in April.
``Paul kind of went an extra mile by actually telling people about the program as he was patrolling the dock,'' O'Gara said. ``As boats were leaving the dock he'd comment, `Do you have a life jacket? We have them for loan.'''
Dybdahl and his assistant, Misty Jack, won't let kids under 13 fish on the dock unless they have a life jacket. O'Gara heard one story about Dybdahl seeing a boatload of kids and adults pulling away from the dock without life jackets. So he loaded some in his own boat, chased down the other boat and gave them the jackets to wear.
Another time Dybdahl brought life jackets to a man with a boatload of six children.
``I told him that no matter how good a swimmer he was, that if something happened there was no way he'd be able to save all his children,'' Dybdahl said.
Alaska has the highest drowning rate in the country, five times the national rate. While the number of commercial fishing drownings has decreased, recreational boaters are drowning more frequently, she said.
``They're drowning like crazy,'' O'Gara said. ``They're the ones responsible for our high drowning rate.''
A study on a stretch of the Tanana River found that the drowning rate decreased to zero when life jacket use became common. By Alaska law, children under age 13 must wear life jackets on the water. Life jackets must be available for anyone over age 13, but they don't have to wear them.
Dybdahl remembers two drownings near Hoonah before the life jacket program started three years ago. There have been none since.
But Dybdahl has been more successful with getting the life jackets used than in getting them returned. Of the 30 life jackets originally donated to the program, only 10 are left. O'Gara is trying to get him more.