Life jackets: To wear or not to wear

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Life jackets: To wear or not to wear

Dave Rice, SPECIAL TO THE RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL

6/24/2003

It is absolutely horrific. Eleven people died June 14 in a boating accident off the Oregon Coast. One of those was the captain of the charter fishing boat, the Taki Tooo. The accident occurred as the 32-foot boat, with 17 anglers, the captain and a deckhand aboard, was leaving the port at Tillamook Bay and heading into very rough seas off Garibaldi, Ore.

None of the individuals who died were wearing life jackets, and some may find that shocking. However, state and federal boating safety officials say that relatively few boaters don their life jackets and wear them while on board a boat.

Six of the eight survivors, who were in the boat’s cabin when the first monster wave hit, had life jackets with them when rescued. They reported finding and putting them on after the accident as they huddled on the overturned boat cabin’s ceiling. The six escaped through a cabin window. Although in shock and suffering from hypothermia, they undoubtedly owe their lives to those life-saving devices.

Only two of the 13 who were on the deck of the boat when the accident occurred survived. According to Edwin Lyngar, boating safety education specialist for Nevada Division of Wildlife, and veteran of three years on a Coast Guard (CG) motor lifeboat rescue team, “Had all of those on deck been wearing a life jacket there would have been more people alive today, I promise you that.”

He said the two who survived without the aid of a life jacket were extremely lucky and/or very determined.

The water temperature at the accident site was 50 degrees and cold water temperatures significantly increase the risk of a person drowning, according to Lyngar.

“In 50 degree water, a person has a 50 percent chance of making it 50 yards. That’s the 50/50/50 rule.” If a person is hypothermic, they may still survive if they have something to keep them from sinking,” he said.

Although an approved type of life jacket is required to be onboard for each person on a boat, only children under the age of 12 are required to actually wear a life jacket, and only when they are on deck and the boat is underway. Lyngar says that it is very uncommon to find a boat on any Nevada water with all onboard wearing a life jacket.

NDOW is conducting their “It Pays to Wear Your Life Jacket” campaign again this year in hopes of increasing voluntary life jacket use. The operator of a boat receives a prize, ranging from a Port-of-Subs sandwich to $1,000 cash, when all people onboard are wearing their life jackets. Lyngar says that only 250 prize envelopes were put together this year. “...because it is very very hard for boating wardens to find a boat with everyone on board wearing their life jackets.”

There are a number of reasons why so many do not wear life jackets. They are bulky, they make it difficult to get an even tan, and they are hot. But Lyngar refutes these and other excuses. “There are Type III and Type V life jackets that are made to be worn [while boating] that are still CG approved and are going to increase your odds of surviving an accident dramatically.”

There are five types of approved life jackets. A good description and picture of each can be found on the web site boatsafe.com, as well as in the publication, “Handbook of Nevada Boating Laws” available from NDOW.

But still, many of us will not wear a life jacket no matter how comfortable or fashionable it may be, so having the devices readily available is important according to Lyngar.

“The next best thing to wearing a life jacket is to have it readily accessible so that if something happens you will have something to hold onto while in the water.” Readily accessible means that each person on board has a life jacket within easy reach that has been fitted to him or herself.

Those who choose not to wear their life jacket at all times while on their boat should at least consider putting one on when the weather changes, well before the water gets rough, leaving or entering port, or when boating in heavy traffic.

As of June 17, Lyngar said there have been five boating-related fatalities on Nevada waters, barely a month into the 2003 boating season. Last year, a total of eight lives were lost in boating accidents. Very few actually involved trauma -- one boat hitting another -- Lyngar said. The vast majority of boating fatalities each year involve a drowning that probably would have been prevented if a life jacket had been worn.

As further proof that life jackets save lives, Lyngar said that although personal watercraft users or “jetskiers” account for about 40 percent of the accidents each year on Nevada waters, they rarely die due to drowning because the law requires that they wear a life jacket.

Lyngar said he is alive today because of a life jacket.

“I will not set foot on a boat without a life jacket on. While in the CG, I fell overboard with a gun and steel-toed shoes, and if I had not had a life jacket on I would be dead today. I encourage every boater that if you are not going to wear one, at least have them close by at all times.”

Further information is available on NDOW’s Web site: boatnevada.org.

Dave Rice retired in 2001 after 30 years with the Nevada Division of Wildlife, 25 years as chief conservation officer. He can be reached at thomascreek@worldnet.att.net.
 

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