Boaters in most small watercraft now required to wear life jackets during cold-weather months
A new regulation went into effect last week in Pennsylvania that now requires boaters to wear a life jacket while underway or at anchor on boats less than 16 feet in length or any canoe or kayak from November 1 until April 30 each year. Previously, boaters in these types of small watercraft were only required to have a life jacket for each passenger on board but were not to wear it. Few recreational boaters are on the water during the coldest six months of the year, but many hunters and anglers often are and therefore need to be aware of the new law and comply with it.
"Life jackets are the most important piece of safety equipment on a boat," said Laurel Anders, director of the Bureau of Boating and Outreach for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. "According to Pennsylvania's boating accident reports, almost 80 percent of all boating fatalities happen to boaters not wearing a life jacket. A disproportionate number of the fatalities occur during the months of November through April. During these cold weather months, boaters are especially at risk due to the water temperature and the risk of sudden cold water immersion."
Cold water, of course, is what this law is all about because falling into cold water is extremely dangerous. And the colder the water, the greater that danger becomes. That's why most of the most of the common excuses for not wearing a life jacket have even less validity from late fall through early spring. At the top of that list is: "I'm a good swimmer." In reality, surviving a fall from a boat or the capsizing of a canoe or kayak has absolutely nothing to do with swimming ability. Such an event is an accident, which is likely to happen quite suddenly and unexpectedly. It's also highly possible you might be injured while going overboard. Add to the fact the crippling shock of being plunged into frigid water and the situation is anything but a routine dip in the backyard swimming pool.
In the fall of 2008, I experienced an unforgettable lesson on the value of wearing a life jacket in cold water. I was in western Maryland to fish the North Branch of the Potomac River and had the opportunity to go whitewater rafting on a manmade course at a ski resort there. We had just finished our third and final run by plunging down a small waterfall and into a large pond at the end of the course. As the raft bobbed in the current pushing away from the base of the falls, I turned to say something to the fellow beside me, but before I could utter a word, I was plunged into the water so quickly there was no chance to react.
Even though I was wearing a life jacket, wetsuit and helmet, the sudden immersion in the cold water caused me to gasp, and with that involuntary reaction I inhaled a big slug of water. I'll never forget those terrifying seconds of being underwater, disoriented and choking, while my life jacket did its job and returned me to the surface. As I gagged and sputtered between grabbing a couple of much needed breaths, I realized even then that I would have surely drowned without ever surfacing in this situation had I not been wearing a life jacket. Obviously, no one would go whitewater rafting without the necessary safety equipment, but it was a graphic lesson nonetheless.
That incident occurred during the first week of October when the water temperature was probably around 50 degrees, hardly frigid but more than chilly enough to stun and create a life-threatening situation. I can only imagine how devastating the shock would be if one were to be suddenly immersed into water of 40 degrees or colder, but I am certain that the odds of surviving such a mishap would not be good without a life jacket.
There is still plenty of good fishing to be had this fall, not to mention waterfowl and other hunting opportunities. None of those activities are worth risking your life for, however, so make sure you have a good life jacket that fits properly and wear it anytime you are on the water during cold weather. Not only is it the prudent thing to do, it's also the law.