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No Jacket Required

Most sailing schools and junior programs already use PFD rules.
One of the allures of sailing, at least for me, is the silence. I don't just mean the absence of engine noise. Sailing provides respite from the background roar of civilization—street noise, ringing telephones, conversations I don't need to hear, the sundry raspings of millions of us rubbing past one another. Going sailing is a game-of-life time-out, a way to leave behind the "do this, don't do that" of life ashore.

Unfortunately, there are those who think my day on the water—out of reach of aggressive motorists, disease-spreading microbes, pistol-brandishing teenagers, homicidal office workers, and assorted zealots du jour—is too dangerous a choice for me to make on my own. Some anonymous, well-meaning bureaucrat has studied the data and knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that wearing a lifejacket—a PFD in bureaucratese—makes it less likely that I will become a drowning statistic.

According to Coast Guard statistics, 588 people drowned while boating in 1997 (the latest statistics available). Sixty-five of those victims (11%) were wearing lifejackets and drowned anyway, but the Coast Guard believes—no doubt rightly—that many of the other 523 drowning victims would have survived had they been wearing a lifejacket. It isn't like lifejackets weren't available—having PFDs aboard has been a legal requirement for nearly 30 years—but, unfortunately, when they were needed they apparently were still in the bottom of a locker.

The Coast Guard thinks there's something wrong with this picture. Do you?
See the poll below.
The Coast Guard campaigns tirelessly to warn us that we don't always have time to put on a lifejacket when an emergency arises. And despite the success of that campaign—annual boat-related drowning deaths have declined by nearly two-thirds since 1971—the Coast Guard views their glass as 1/3 full rather than 2/3 empty. In their own words, "nonregulatory methods of modifying behavior have not been successful enough." Translation: "boaters aren't bright enough to protect themselves, so it is time to make wearing a flotation device mandatory."No matter how noble the intent, this is a bad idea.

The CDC (Center for Disease Control) tells us that for the same year—1997—the total number of unintentional (?) drownings nationwide was 4,051. When you do the math, you determine that more than 85% of annual drownings have no connection to boats. Outfitting bathers with PFDs would save a lot more lives, but that's an idea not likely to catch on.

In 1997/98 the Coast Guard sought public comment on mandatory PFDs. They got an earful. Respondents overwhelmingly opposed the Coast Guard proposing any requirements for any boaters to wear PFDs. In response to a specific question, a large number of respondents said that a mandatory PFD requirement would cause them to reduce or stop their participation in boating or not comply with the requirement. As my Uncle Porter liked to say, this is "like burnin' down the barn to git rid of rats."

Despite such an overwhelming mandate from those supposedly at risk, the Coast Guard has decided to come back for a second bite at the apple. Late in 1999, the Coast Guard once again sought public comment on requiring boaters to wear PFDs, this time shying away from "all recreational boaters at all times" but targeting specific classes of boaters, namely children; boaters aboard vessels under 16 feet in length; those operating specific types of boats, such as open powerboats, PWCs, sailboats, canoes and kayaks; and boaters operating their vessels in certain weather or water conditions.

The comment period has already closed (April 3, 2000), and the responses were again overwhelmingly opposed to any mandatory PFD requirement. Are we just being obstinate?

Consider the PFD requirement for children. This is already the law in 35 states, passing easily because no public figure wants to go on record as opposing safety for children. But is it a good law? When a drowning occurs "ashore" the tragic odds are 1 in 4 that the victim is a child under 12. On board a boat, a child's odds improve to 1 in 42. There are no doubt numerous ways to interpret this startling disparity, but my conclusion is that boating parents recognize that drowning is a danger and protect their children with close supervision and strict rules—which likely includes wearing a lifejacket at times. But, as one respondent to the Coast Guard eloquently states, "At some point, forcing a child to wear an excruciatingly hot, chafing, irritating lifejacket on a hot day every minute underway in calm waters stops being a safety matter and starts being a child abuse matter."

Even if your child doesn't suffer a heat stroke (children are far more susceptible to overheating than adults), if she or he associates sailing with the misery of a lifejacket, how enthusiastic can we expect that child to be for future outings? I'm not opposed to lifejackets on children, but this is no more a matter for governmental edict than kids climbing trees or failing to eat green vegetables. The statistics suggest that boating parents are doing a near-perfect job of determining when PFDs are prudent, without a Federal decree.

PWCs and open boats under 16 feet are two other target groups. Fine with you, you say? How big is your dinghy? Such a law would require every cruising sailor dinghying ashore to wear a lifejacket for the 24-second trip. This is rendered even more absurd if, say, you have just arrived from an open-water passage.As for PWC operators, personally I would require a weight belt. Just kidding. Still, these craft seem to foster such irresponsible behavior that it seems irresponsible not to require a lifejacket. My argument against here is that you aren't doing the gene pool any favor when you protect the feeble-minded. Actually, this thesis applies across the board. If I become an open-fly statistic—an inordinate number of male drowning victims are recovered with their zippers down—that leaves those with better sense to father the next generation. Bad for me, but good for the species.

I could remark on mandatory PFDs for canoeists and kayakers, but they can object for themselves. However, the reason mandatory PFDs is not a dead issue is that too many of us are willing to believe that the other guy might need protecting. The Coast Guard is still considering this issue because almost 120 of the 600 written comments they received "supported Federal or State PFD requirements for at least some categories of recreational vessels, boaters, or activities."

Before you decide that mandatory lifejackets are probably a good idea for some boaters—just not for you—take a better look. The number 1 identified cause for fatal boating accidents is alcohol. Number 2 is hazardous waters. After that comes ignorance or stupidity—more charitably categorized by the Coast Guard as operator inattention, excessive speed, operator inexperience, overloading, careless or reckless operation, and no proper lookout.

A lifejacket doesn't keep some alcohol-addled doofus from crashing into you—it just improves his chances of living to do it again. We need to take irresponsible boaters off the water, not reduce the consequences of their behavior. Toughen BUI laws. Post and enforce speed limits in congested waters. Establish meaningful operator certification programs, perhaps with reduced insurance rates as an incentive.

PFDs can and do save lives, and if you elect to wear one all the time, you will no doubt reduce your risk of drowning while boating. However, when you leave the booze ashore and operate your boat in a responsible manner, that risk is already comfortably low. That twice as many Amtrak passengers as sailors drowned in 1993 points out the futility of trying to legislate away all of life's risks.PFDs are uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous—restricting movement, presenting a snag risk, preventing egress in the event of a capsize, and providing a false sense of security, especially when operating in cold waters. It is a mistake to think of a lifejacket as some sort of guardian. By the time it comes into play, something bad has already happened. The best way to avoid drowning is to make sure you stay on the boat. When the risk, or the consequences, of going overboard rise to a certain level, I put on a harness.

Whether and when to wear a lifejacket depends on the circumstances. Each of us needs to take responsibility for our own safety. And we need to allow, even insist, that other boaters do likewise. It is time to drive a stake through the heart of this particular Coast Guard initiative.


Don Casey is offline  
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