The recent State of Alaska Epidemiology Bulletin has some alarming statistics about marine safety practices and recreational boaters in Alaska. The results of this current report show fewer Alaskan boaters are wearing fewer PFDs!
Alaska has the most coastline, rivers, and lakes out of any state in the US; it is therefore not surprising that it consistently has the highest rates of age-adjusted drownings in the United States. One would hope, however, that Alaska would have the highest percentage of PFDs worn on the water.
Alaska's waters are all classified as cold water, which means below 70 degrees Fahrenheit by AMSEA's definition. Cold water drops the core temperature quickly, impairs breathing, and increases blood pressure. To improve one's chance of survival in the cold water off Alaska, mariners must wear warm clothing, a floatation device, and get a swift rescue.
Of the recreational and subsistence boaters who drowned from 2019 to 2021, 88% were not wearing a PFD. This statistic is an increase of 13% from the 75% of people who drowned from 2016-2019 that were not wearing PFDs.
It is time to change this pattern. Be the role model who makes a habit of donning your PFD and remind your neighbors of the importance of floatation devices in cold water. Most people will happily wear a PFD if handed one, and many will thank you for prioritizing safety. Make a rule that everyone has to wear a PFD on your vessel. People who refuse to wear a life jacket don't get to go.
Having a PFD for everyone on board isn't enough when a boat capsizes in a moment. If the boat hits a rock or a log, people can get flung from the vessel without having time to grab onto the vessel, let alone reach for their life jacket.
For people living and recreating on the water, survival isn't the first thing on your mind every time you step on a vessel. For many of us, being on the water is second nature. It is instinctual and necessary for our survival. Along with having the privilege of being comfortable on the water needs to be safety training to make safety-conscious decisions. We must build the muscle memory of zipping up the floatation jacket, sliding into the raingear with built-in floatation, and swinging your arm through the suspender vest, which can fit over all of your waterproof and winter layers.
New PFDs are hitting the market yearly with various styles, sizes, warmth, and buoyancy ratings. Some PFDs look like a shirt until inflated, while some are rain gear with inherent buoyancy built in. Some jackets are made of neoprene foam to warm and float the wearer. With such a wide variety of styles and functions, there are PFDs for everyone!
We have the tools to reduce the number of drowning fatalities yearly. We can continue to enjoy the perks of living on and around the water without taking unnecessary chances. Find a PFD that fits properly and improves your boating experience. Wear the coat that will keep you warm in your open skiff, or enjoy the security of the padded back in case of slipping on the rocks. When the next Alaska Epidemiology bulletin comes out, let it show a dramatic reversal in the trend and reduce drowning fatalities in Alaskan waters.