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The majority of people who die in recreational boating accidents fall overboard or capsize in their boats. Once in the water, even an experienced swimmer can quickly fatigue, suffer hypothermia, lose coordination and drown.
Life jackets or PFDs (personal flotation devices) save lives, but only if they are worn. The life jacket stowed below deck or jammed into a storage space is of no use. Make sure that everyone on board has been fitted with a properly-sized life jacket or float coat, and wears it.
When shopping for a life vest, jacket or float coat, read the label carefully. The U.S. Coast Guard approves four types of vests and coats:
Type I is an "offshore jacket" rugged and buoyant enough (22 pounds) to help in rough seas where rescues may be slow. Many contain a float collar that will turn the unconscious wearer face-up in the water. This type offers good protection, but many boaters consider them bulky and uncomfortable to wear.
Type II is called a "nearshore buoyant vest." It's fine if you are boating near shore where chances are rescue will be swift. It's more comfortable than Type I but less buoyant (15.5 pounds) and it's not rugged enough to keep you afloat for an extended time in rough seas.
Type III is called a "flotation aid" and it's the most commonly used vest by water skiers, kayakers, anglers and sailors. It is pretty comfortable and has moderate buoyancy (15.5 pounds). It's a good choice on lakes and rivers where the chance of immediate rescue is good. The wearer must tilt his or her head back to avoid the face-down position in the water. Skiers often wear a more rugged Type III vest that can take the impact of hitting the water at faster speeds. Float coats, which look like insulated raincoats, offer Type III protection in an insulated, warm, waterproof coat that's a good choice for cold-season boating.
Type V protection is for "special use devices" – sailboarding harnesses, deck suits, commercial fishing vests, whitewater rafting vests and other specialty vests. The Coast Guard has approved several types of inflatable vests as well, which are especially lightweight and comfortable.
I'll bet you thought we couldn't count! Type IV devices are "throwable devices" like cushions or rings. They will certainly help someone who has fallen overboard, but they are not of much help to unconscious victims, nonswimmers or children.
Speaking of kids, it's a great idea to introduce them early to the joys of swimming and boating. They will enjoy it more if they feel safe. The American Pediatrics Society reports that drowning is one of the top causes of child death, and that children under the age of seven can't properly put on a life jacket without help. Parents and adults need to set a good example and encourage the use of life vests. Water wings and other swimming aids are not safe substitutes for life vests.
Children's life vests are sized by weight range – under 30 pounds, 30-50 pounds, 50-90 pounds and over 90 pounds. Get the right size and don't skimp by buying a vest your child can "grow into." If it's too big, it can slip off in the panic of an emergency. Some vests specify chest sizes. Measure the child around the chest just under the armpits for the right fit. It's best to have your child with you when you shop. Fasten the vest snugly, then lift the vest up by the shoulders. If it gives more than three inches, it's too big. Many children's vests are equipped with crotch straps to keep the vest in place. Vests for smaller children also have a wide collar that floats and keeps the child's head above water, face-up. Some also have a wide strap at the back of the collar that you can grasp with a boat hook in an emergency. Choose children's vests in high visibility colors so your child can be seen in the water.
Encourage children to test their vests in shallow water so they can feel comfortable wearing them and will trust them in an emergency.
Wear and care
The buoyancy and life-saving value of life jackets decreases over time. Check jackets before each boating season and at least twice during the boating months. Check that all straps and buckles work. Look for fraying seams and weakened shoulder straps.
Store your life jackets in areas with good ventilation and hang jackets up in a shady spot to dry them after each trip. Mildew and mold can rot the fabric and the floatation foam. Don't ever wash life vests with detergents or solvents, or dry-clean them. This can harden or dissolve the foam and the vest will lose its buoyancy. Drying a vest in a clothes dryer can also ruin it.
Don't use life vests or boat cushions as kneeling pads or boat fenders. This can compress the foam and destroy the buoyant properties. Treat life vests carefully and wear them on board until it becomes a habit. You never know when your life might depend on it.
Bart Halverson and John Lacenski are DNR law enforcement safety specialists.