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Guidelines for Boating Safety

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Several years ago, over a decade now, two brothers went fishing on a small mountain lake in Northern Utah. The air was frigid and wind gusts effortlessly pushed their small fishing boat to and fro as they fished unsuccessfully. Soon the waves grew and water sprayed the brothers with near freezing lake water, and the uncomfortable expedition became much more dangerous. The heavens opened and the men were doused from above as profoundly as they were from beneath. The waves increased in both size and force. Unexpectedly (or perhaps by this point expectedly) a monster wave pushed, and then capsized their comparatively tiny fishing vessel. Thrown into the nearly frozen water, their bodies were almost instantly disabled with cold. Both men clung to the sides of their boat—the only thing between their now numb bodies and near certain death.

Those men clung to life itself for several hours. By this point their fingers no longer functioned and could not be trusted to support their increasingly burdensome bodies. Finally, mercifully, another fishing boat spotted the perilous situation and came to their rescue by calling 911. Medical support came over land, sea, and air. They were eventually flown via an emergency medical helicopter to the nearest hospital.

That’s where I met them. I was working in the emergency department at the time and happened to be on shift when they arrived. One of the brothers, the younger of the two, was unconscious—having finally lost the ability to survive while en route to the hospital. His body temperature had dropped to the point that it was no longer able to sustain life. One of the doctors commented to me, in a somewhat nonchalant but equally determined voice that, “he’s not dead until he’s warm and dead.” This, evidently, was technical medical speak for “due to the cold, his body has shut down, but if we can warm it up, perhaps the cold saved his life by sending him into a state of shock.” His heart was stopped for nearly three hours before doctors were able to warm him enough to bring him around. Sure enough, around he came.

After spending a couple of weeks in the hospital, he came down to greet and thank us. We had a celebration in his honor to celebrate the miracle of his life.

He was lucky. The water is not always so forgiving to boaters.

With summer just around the corner, many families will enjoy an afternoon, a weekend, or a whole vacation on a boat in the waters of the Great Northwest. Though, during the summer months, except perhaps on the peaks of the Cascades, the water will probably not be cold enough to create the significant risks described above, there are risks when recreating on the water. These risks can be reduced, significantly, with a little common sense and care.

The BoatU.S. Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water “is an innovative leader promoting safe, clean and responsible boating.” They offer the following guidance and suggestions in order to stay safe when recreating on a boat or other personal watercraft:

Alcohol and Boating – Alcohol is a contributing factor in nearly 50 percent of all boating accidents. It also can lead to DUI charges—the standards and penalties are the same in Washington for boating under the influence as they are for driving under the influence. A .08 BAC will prove intoxication, but even if you’re impaired, even if you have less than a .08 BAC, you can be arrested, charged, and convicted of a DUI. It’s just not worth it. Leave alcohol consumption for when you are safely ashore with no plans to travel.

Carbon Monoxide – Experienced boaters are well aware of the dangers posed by carbon monoxide or “CO”. But many people are unaware that CO can follow us out to the middle of a lake. The most common creators of CO gas out on the water are boat engines and appliances such as stoves, grills, hot water heaters, or generators. If you smell exhaust gases from any of these, there is CO present. You should install and maintain a marine grade CO detector on your boat. CO can make a person sick in seconds at high concentrations and the symptoms are very similar to seasickness or alcohol intoxication. If you suspect a person has been overexposed to CO, move them to fresh air and seek medical attention.

Cold Water Boating – If the air and the water temperature added together equal less than 100 degrees F, you should take the following steps: (1) wear a properly fitted life jacket; (2) dress for the water temperature not the air temperature. Many layers, including a hat, will help increase chances of survival if you end up in the water. The first layer, should be a synthetic fabric that will keep cool water away from your skin. Avoid cotton as the first layer; (3) bring extra clothes in a dry bag and keep them on the boat just in case someone ends up wet; (4) energy bars and a thermos of a warm beverage is also a welcomed accessory.

Crew Overboard – Believe it or not, one of the most common causes of Crew Overboard, or COB, is a “crew member relieving himself over the side of the boat in a standing position.” That’s right folks. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. While on a boat, you should always strive to keep three points of contact with the boat. Two feet + at least one hand = 3 points. Also, if you’re operating the boat, always wear your engine cut-off lanyard so that the engine stops if you go overboard.

Fire Extinguishers – The Coast Guard requires at least one B-1 marine fire extinguisher on board. If your boat is longer than 26’ you may need to check the regulations to see what is required.

Flares & Distress Signals – Visual distress signals, or V.D.S. are part of a boat’s safety equipment. When deployed they allow others to better see you and communicate that you are, or could be, in trouble. Different types of V.D.S are available. Some, like flares, work in both day and night. Make sure your signals are in good working condition and have not expired.

Life Jackets – A life jacket (or Personal Flotation Device – PFD) is “the single most important piece of equipment on your boat and the most important consideration should be size.” More than 66 percent of all boating fatalities are drowning and 90 percent of drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket. Buy a jacket. Wear it. There must be a properly fitted, Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each and every person aboard a recreational boat. Children under 13 years old must wear a jacket, unless they are below decks in an enclosed cabin.

Marine Communications – Many boaters trust that their personal cell phone will work to call for help in the event of an emergency. However, cell phones are less reliable on water than a very high frequency (VHF) radio. Most cell phones are not water resistant and can easily become damaged or lost in a storm or if they go overboard. Most importantly, a cell phone won’t allow a person to “broadcast” to several boaters at a time—important in a true emergency. Conversely, a VHF radio allows to a user to call for help from all nearby boats and shore facilities and can also assist by assisting in gathering navigation and weather information.

Navigation Rules/ATONS – Would-be drivers learn in driver’s education that they must stop at a stop sign and yield the right of way to pedestrians when they approach a crosswalk. The same types of rules apply to boating. Though entire books and courses are offered, there are some basics that everyone should know. These basic rules can be studied on the BoatU.S. website by clicking the link at the start of this section. Further, much like signs and traffic signals, ATONs or “Aids to Navigation” provide helpful position and navigation information for those who know how to understand what is being communicated. ATONs include buoys, day beacons, lights, lightships, lighthouses, radio beacons, fog signals, marks and other devices.

By following these specific rules and guidelines and applying simple common sense we can make the lakes, rivers, streams, and even oceans safer for our families, our friends, and our fellow boaters. Adherence to these principles make us all safer by reducing the risk of injury and maximizing the ability to respond should an emergency occur. Enjoy the water, but do so safely.

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About Author

Scott Edwards is a resident of Ridgefield and a partner at the Vancouver law firm of Schauermann Thayer Jacobs Staples & Edwards PS. His practice focuses exclusively on representing persons injured by the carelessness of others. He and his wife are the proud parents of four beautiful children. In addition to his work with Vancouver Family Magazine, he has authored a safety blog entitled "Make Safe" where he has written about topics aimed at making our communities safer.

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