Boat safely with proper care, preparedness

If you are a recreation boater, May marks the beginning of the most dangerous time of year. The sultry days of summer make cool lakes and rivers an inviting refuge, but they can be deadly.

Last year in Pennsylvania, for example, recreational boating accidents claimed 22 lives. That almost doubles the last 10-year average of 12 victims per year; that’s 15 more boating deaths than reported in 2010; and it’s the second highest number of boating deaths in Pennsylvania since 1992.

Avoiding accidents

Such numbers make boating seem extremely dangerous. Too often, however, boaters are their own worst enemy. Only three of the 22 Pennsylvania victims wore a life jacket at the time of their accidents.

And in 16 of the other 19 accidents, there were functional life jackets on the vessel. Violate the first rule of safety in any activity, and tragic disasters can follow. Each of the fatal incidents is described in the May/June issue of Pennsylvania Boater & Angler. The story, by Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission Boating and Watercraft Safety Manager Ryan Walt, should be required reading by all recreational boaters (http://fishandboat.com/angon.htm).

Spring and summer are the most dangerous times of year simply because that’s when conditions are best for boating. Of the 22 Pennsylvania fatalities, 20 occurred May through August. But warm air temperatures do not insure safe boating conditions.

Water has a high specific heat. That means it takes a lot of energy to raise its temperature. So even on hot summer days, water temperatures might only reach the mid to upper 70s. Prolonged immersion in sub-body temperature water can induce fatal hypothermia.

In fact, sudden immersion into cold water was a factor in seven of the deaths, and six of those accidents involved canoes or kayaks. Alcohol was also a factor in four of the fatalities.

Don’t drink and boat. Drinking while boating is no safer than drinking while driving. Just a little self control can save lives. Boaters should also consider the safety of their passengers as well as other boaters when on the water. All but two of the Pennsylvania victims were men, with an average age of 57.

Only three wore life jackets at the time of their accidents. Neither of the two female victims wore life jackets.

The numbers from Ohio tell a similar tale. In 2011, 14 people died in recreational boating accidents (12 were male). Alcohol use was implicated in six of the deaths, and 13 of the 14 victims were not wearing life jackets.

In West Virginia, six people died in boating accidents last year, and only two of the six were wearing life jackets (and those were running whitewater).

Wear your jacket. It seems common knowledge that everyone on the water should wear a life jacket. The message is proclaimed loudly and clearly on virtually all state and federal outdoor recreation web sites and on printed material provided from state agencies and boat dealers.

And yet the message is ignored. People keep dying in recreational boating accidents. According to Coast Guard statistics, boat safety is a national problem. In 2009, 12.7 million boats were registered in the United States, and 82 million Americans participated in recreational boating.

The deaths

Of those, 709 died in boating accidents. Here are the chilling numbers: 84 percent of the victims were not wearing life jackets; 90 percent of the boat operators in those accidents had not received any boating safety instruction; and alcohol was a factor in 16 percent of the deaths.

So if you plan to be on the water this year and don’t want to become a statistic, follow three simple rules:

No.. 1. Always wear a life jacket, even while on the dock before boarding. It’s not unheard of to slip and fall between the dock and the boat.

No. 2. Take a course in boat safety. Inquire about boat safety classes at your state natural resource agency or a reputable boat dealer. And if you are a guest on a boat, ask if the skipper has had a boat safety course.

No. 3. Save the alcohol for after the boat trip. Ice cold soft drinks taste great on the water. Be smart. Make 2012 a safe year on the water.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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