In the northern hemisphere, boating season is now underway. Throughout the tropics, it’s always boating season. In the southern hemisphere, it’s probably still boating season albeit with colder water. In Canada, as in many other countries, men will make up at least 80% of the boating deaths. Why? Year in and year out, it’s the same for two reasons. Men are not wearing their lifejackets and because countries do not have the political will to make wearing lifejackets mandatory.
I will look at Canada as a sample country, but this applies worldwide. This occurs year in and year out because of two reasons. (I’ve put links below to all kinds of national statistics below. Each link points to the same obvious way forward.)
It’s the Same Each Year
According to the Canadian Red Cross and all surveys and statistics, in Canada each year and for the last 20 years and counting:
- Every year, approximately 450-500 Canadians die needlessly in unintentional water-related fatalities. Year in, year out.
- Wearing a lifejacket could eliminate up to 90% of all boating-related drownings. (83% in the United States.)
- Men aged 15-44 are the highest risk of boating-related fatalities. (Typical macho over-confidence.)
- Less than 50% of Canadians who own a boat always wear their lifejackets.
- More than 24% of boating fatalities occur when a lifejacket is present on board but not worn.
- Alcohol is present or suspected in more than 50% of boating fatalities. (Statistics likely underrepresent cannabis and the use of other drugs in the fatalities. Now, with legalization and increased availability of cannabis in Canada, that will likely increase the Canadian boating fatality statistics.)
I was saved by a lifejacket
I had a watersport incident when I was young which left me unconscious in the lake until the boat was able to reach me. The lifejacket kept me head-upwards as I floated there. Without that lifejacket, I’d probably have drowned before the boat could turn back and reach me.
PFD or Lifejacket?
For this article, I will use the term lifejacket. PFD is simply the acronym for a Personal Floatation Device. While there are PFDs such as floating seat cushions, I will only talk about jacket-style PFDs as the properly-fitting and properly-fitting jacket will have a greater chance of keeping you alive.
Boater Education is Not Working Well Enough
There are brilliant boater education and water safety campaigns, but they aren’t succeeding in convincing all boaters to wear their lifejackets.
- Alaska Office of Boating Safety https://youtu.be/rMSpYlgFhFU
- Importance of Actually Wearing One’s Lifejacket https://youtu.be/3E64rMy5jxY
- You will probably fail at putting on your lifejacket while in the water (and your lifejacket will probably not be with you in the water): https://youtu.be/u7nVDG2LlxQ?t=80
- Here’s a good resource on lifejackets: http://www.wearalifejacket.com/walcEn/home01En.html
- Many more at the end of this article!
There was an ad many years that was quite powerful with a classic scenario. In a boat, the kids were wearing their lifejackets but not the now-drowned dad when he fell from the boat. The final scene was the children stranded in the boat calling endlessly for help. It was very powerful.
(Let’s be clear, there are women and children drowning each year and that needs to be addressed, and it will be addressed with these Better Preparedness recommendations.)
Time and time again, men are not following the recommended lifejacket safety recommendations.
Do these thoughts sound familiar?
- It won’t happen to me.
- How could I have a boating incident today?
- The water’s pretty warm.
- I can swim.
- I’m not far from shore.
- There are lifejackets stored in the boat.
- I can probably get to a lifejacket and put it on.
- I’m a good paddler or boater, even in these wavy conditions.
- It’s not mandatory to wear it.
- Nobody else is wearing their lifejacket, so I won’t either.
What is an Inflatable Lifejacket or PFD? Is that the Solution? No.
An inflatable lifejacket is a vest or waistband that can inflate a folded-up airbag via a compressed (CO2) gas cartridge. I will be blunt. I’m not a fan of these as I feel it’s only halfway to being what we need. I feel there are shortcomings as compared to what I would call a solid-state lifejacket (meaning a fixed-foam lifejacket that will always float no matter what). I feel the inflatable lifejackets give a false sense of safety. Many countries also have an age minimum, such as 16, for using an inflatable lifejacket.
There are two types of inflatable lifejackets:
Manually Inflating Lifejackets: This will only inflate if someone pulls the toggle to deploy the airbag. If you are knocked unconscious, you can not pull the toggle and you will likely drown. Also, if at some point you deploy the airbag, you then have to install a new CO2 cartridge and you may not have one with you, meaning, no more deployable lifejacket if you are on a multi-day outing. A manually inflating lifejacket will not deploy if fall into water until you or someone else pulls the toggle.
Automatically Inflating Lifejackets: This variant has a small device that if submerged in water will dissolve a small disc and it should fire the inflation mechanism to inflate the airbag. There are cases of these devices not working as they should. Again, it’s a one-off and if you were to fall in or jump in the water, it should deploy the airbag and no longer be usable until you replace both the mechanism and CO2 cartridge. You also need to store the lifejacket properly to ensure the mechanism is not harmed by moisture.
Yes, a conventional fixed-foam lifejacket has a bit more bulk than the inflatable lifejackets, but I feel the inflatables are halfway to ideal protection.
As in cars, we cannot predict incidents
If we were so capable of judging when there was a serious risk of drowning, we’d hardly have any drowning incidents. We aren’t though. The thing is that 400-500 Canadians die each year because they thought it was safer than it was. Most of those deaths are men!
We’ve clearly not been able to predict these incidents and the timing. We can’t predict when car crashes will occur as there are so many personal and outside factors involved, so we are required to wear our seatbelts at all times.
Countries continue to stop halfway to doing what’s right and what’s needed. Clearly lifejackets are often present on various types of watercraft but were not worn when a person was ejected from the boat, the person fell out, there was a collision with another boat or obstacle,…
What Are Your Current Boating Regulations and Are You Compliant?
Do your research and know your boating regulations.
We Are Missing the Statistics of Non-Incidents
Deaths are generally reported in most countries and those statistics are easier to obtain than injury statistics and in particular non-incidents. A non-incident is one in which there was no grave consequence of someone having fallen into the lake, river or ocean.
Here are non-incident statistics I wish were available, such as:
- The number of people who fell into the water or who were ejected from their boat but their lifejacket prevented them from being a fatality.
- The number of people whose lifejacket gave them the floatation needed to take a few moments, collect their thoughts and get back into their canoe, swim to shore, signal for help, etc…
Boating Refers to All Kinds of Watercraft
Remember, there are many aspects of boating: as drivers, passengers, towed as watersports, canoeists, kayakers, windsurfers, SUP paddleboarders, … We often judge this or that form of boating as being so mundane and safety, and that we couldn’t possibly require or need to wear a lifejacket.
I’d estimate that many boaters refrain from wearing the lifejacket available to them because others aren’t wearing them. It seems that only a law requiring the wearing of the lifejacket and enforcement by the operator will bring the necessary change of behaviour.
The Better Preparedness Recommendations to Lower the Boating Death Rates
Simple, two things:
- Make wearing a lifejacket mandatory. Almost worldwide, there is a lack of political will to make wearing lifejackets mandatory and that keeps killing people. Why have seatbelts in cars and helmets in motorcycling been so widely adopted but not lifejackets?
- Regardless of legislation and enforcement, we have to wear the lifejackets. There is no excuse. Put it on. Simply only having a lifejacket somewhere in the boat is clearly not saving lives.
We Can Do This!
Listen, you and your lawmakers decide. Will 2019, 2020, 2021, … generate the same annual statistics in Canada and elsewhere? At the moment, we’re likely already on our way to the same statistics, unless we change. Wear your lifejacket and make it mandatory.
Not wearing lifejackets still the leading cause of boating deaths (New Zealand): “up to two-thirds of recreational boaties who died might have been saved if they wore lifejackets.”
Mandatory life jackets rule saves lives (Australia): “Educational campaigns encouraging life-jacket use may not be enough to get all boaters to wear the vests at all times, but making it mandatory does make a difference…”
OPP reports eight-year high in boating fatalities in 2017 (Ontario, Canada): “42 of the 54 victims over those two years found not wearing life jackets.”
American Boating Association: Boating Fatality Facts(USA): “Where cause of death was known, 80% of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 83% were not wearing a life jacket.”
Transport Canada: Choosing lifejackets and personal flotation devices (PFDs): “Most recreational boaters who die on the water each year in Canada are not wearing flotation devices, or are not wearing them properly.”
Canadian Red Cross: Boating Fatalities in Canada: Wearing a lifejacket could eliminate up to 90% of all boating-related drownings
2016 Canadian Drowning Report: “Over 80% of drowning fatalities once again occurred among men.”