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Don't skip the life jacket when boating

How to stay safe on the water this summer

Published: July 04, 2014 06:00 AM

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Recently I was pulled over by the state police. Funny thing, I was in a canoe at the time. I wasn't wearing my life jacket, but I pulled it out of the canoe to show the officer that I had one with me. "You know you really should wear that when you are out on the lake," he told me.  

While I always make sure my children wear life jackets, I didn't think I needed to wear one myself, mainly because I consider myself to be a pretty good swimmer. But I couldn't have been more wrong. Wearing a life jacket can literally mean the difference between life and death—no matter how well you can swim. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about 350 boating-related drownings in the U.S. every year. Many of those deaths could have been prevented by wearing a proper-fitting life jacket, the U.S. Coast Guard says.  

While boating, make sure you protect your skin with the best sunscreen and wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.  

And an Australian study out last week in the journal Injury Prevention makes a very good case for mandatory recreational boating life jacket laws. 

The study looked at the six-year period before and after the state of Victoria in Australia passed a law in 2005 making wearing a life jacket mandatory for all recreational boaters. There were 59 drowning deaths related to recreational boating in the six years before the law was passed, but just 16 deaths after the law took effect. “These findings provide further support for the adoption of a regulatory approach ... to increase the wearing of life jackets,” the authors wrote.

Life jacket tips

If you go out on the water this summer, make sure you wear a life jacket that's the right size and in good condition. Here are some more tips from the U.S. Coast Guard:

  • Read the label on your life jacket to be sure it's made for people your weight and size.
  • Try on your life jacket to see if it fits comfortably snug. Then test it in shallow water to see how it handles. 
  • To check the buoyancy of your life jacket in the water, relax your body and let your head tilt back. Make sure it keeps your chin above water and you can breathe easily.
  • Be aware that your life jacket may not act the same in swift or rough water as in calm water. The clothes you wear and the items in your pockets may also change the way it works.
  • If your mouth is not well above the water, get a new life jacket or one with more buoyancy.
  • Before you go out on the water, make sure all on board are wearing life vests. To work best, they must be worn with all straps, zippers, and ties fastened. Tuck in any loose strap ends to avoid getting hung up.
  • Don't alter your life jacket because an altered one may not save your life. If yours doesn't fit, get one that does.

What to do for children

A life jacket will keep a child afloat, but may not keep a struggling child face up. That's why the U.S. Coast Guard says it's important to teach children how to put on a life jacket and to help them get used to wearing one in the water.

Make sure the life jacket fits snugly. To check for a good fit, pick the child up by the shoulders of the life jacket. If it fits correctly, the child's chin and ears will not slip through. Remember that life jackets aren't baby sitters and that an adult should always be present.

The Boat U.S. Foundation has a state-specific listing of life jacket laws for children.

—Chris Hendel

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