But I Can Swim!?

Not wearing a life vest when you are on a recreational boat is about the same as not wearing your seat belt when driving on the highway: Perhaps 8 out of 10 water-recreation related deaths in the US in recent years would not have happened were the person wearing a life vest (as in wearing, not just having one near by). In 2008, about 700 people died in boating accidents in the US. Over 500 of those deaths were by drowning. Of those, abut 50 were wearing their life vest.

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Comments

  1. #1 stripey_cat
    August 5, 2011

    Hell yes! I haven’t sailed since I was a kid, and I was damn lucky never to end up in the water, but I had three seperate head injuries (two from the boom, and one, somehow, on a thwart). Any of them would have dazed me enough to make swimming difficult, especially the one where my scalp was bleeding. I also saw two people pulled out completely unconscious after getting hit on the head in capsizes, and another in real difficulties with a broken arm. Even with a buoyance aid on she was having trouble keeping her face out of the water. All were wearing rigid buoyancy aids, and all three survived.

    It doesn’t matter how strong a swimmer you are (I could manage a couple of miles in warmish lake-water), if you’re unconscious, you will drown. If you are dazed or bleeding, you will struggle. If you have a broken limb, you will struggle. If you come up under the sail or tangled in ropes, you will have a job getting free. If you are winded and breathe water, you will panic. Anything that keeps you on the surface and visible while a rescue boat or a friend in the water approaches, will save lives.

  2. #2 khan
    August 5, 2011

    I recall reading somewhere that a big cause of drowning death is a man standing up in a small boat to pee and falling into the cold water (without vest).

    Is this so?

  3. #3 Russell
    August 5, 2011

    I routinely wear an inflatable. But not when anchored. Or below. So it becomes a matter of judgment. And yeah, someone can get all high and mighty about it being that gray area where people drown. Quite right. The fact remains that boats aren’t cars. You don’t cook, sleep, or work on the engine while driving down the highway.

    On open water, it’s more the harness than the life vest that matters. If you go overboard standing watch in the middle of the night, the chances of anyone finding your corpse are pretty damn low. Though one shrimper in Texas last year fell off, swam to an oil platform, and spent two days there before being rescued. Strange things happen.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    August 5, 2011

    Khan, I believe that what you say may be true, esp. early in the year in Minnesota. At least, it happens now and then. The thing is, the water is so cold that “instant drowning syndrome” happens … well, kinda instantly. It is said that the typical scenario is to find a boat going in circles, and at the bottom of the lake is the body of a man with his fly down. And he wasn’t fly fishing.

  5. #5 sailor
    August 5, 2011

    Yes falling over the side when peeing does happen. An unwise thing to do.
    Life jackets are of great help if there is anyone else around or you are not too far from land.
    Sailing is generally pretty safe. 90 times more people get killed in car accidents than by drowning (and this includes non-boating drowning). In fact I remember one year in the UK when more people died of drowning in cars than they did in boating accidents!

  6. #6 BinJabreel
    August 5, 2011

    The one that almost killed me in an instant?

    The instinct to gasp in shock and surprise when the cold water hits you.

    Holy crap, my lungs almost filled with air in a split second.

    So, yeah. Wear a life vest.

  7. #7 gwen
    August 5, 2011

    I am an excellent swimmer. I learned to swim at about the same time I learned to walk. My non-swimming parents were determined we would all learn. I taught my children to swim from a very young age, and as a swim teacher, taught many other young children. But, I never left my children unsupervised around water, I always wear a life jacket, and I never drink and sail or operate a boat. Nor will I get on a boat where I think the operator will be drinking.

  8. #8 hoary puccoon
    August 6, 2011

    Russell @3:
    On open water, it’s more the harness than the life vest that matters.

    That’s correct. Greg, you are giving excellent advice for people in open boats on lakes. However, it’s not safe to wear a lifevest below decks. If the boat starts to sink, you won’t be able to get out (the same reason the safety spiel on airplanes tells you not to inflate your life vest inside the plane.)

    When my husband and I do bluewater cruising, we wear inflatable life vests on harnesses, and run jack lines up the decks so we stay attached to the boat no matter where we are on deck.

    Regarding gwen @7. Right on. We NEVER drink while underway. (And our longest passage, the Virgin Islands to the Azores, lasted 24 days.) Too many weird things– almost hitting a whale, getting in the middle of naval maneuvers– have happened to us. And weird things are even more likely to happen on a small lake with a lot of traffic than at sea.

  9. #9 spam
    August 6, 2011

    spam deleted

  10. #10 informania
    August 6, 2011

    “Over 500 of those deaths were by drowning. Of those, about 50 were wearing their life vest.”

    “Quan cites field studies that find 90 percent of the toddlers wearing life vests on boats. “But over the age of 14, it’s only 13 percent.” (http://www.seattlechildrens.org/classes-community/community-programs/drowning-prevention/teen-safety-promotion/)

    So about 13% wears a life jacket, and about 10% of drowning-death victims wore one.. That evens out, there does not seem to be any overrepresentation of non-wearers among the drowning deaths.

  11. #11 informania
    August 6, 2011

    The 3% could, of course, still represent a significant number; but it’s certainly not comparable to the benefits of seatbelts in a car.

  12. #12 P Smith
    August 6, 2011

    A lot of idiots say their reason for not wearing a seat belt in a car is “they want to be thrown clear”. The reality is, if you are thrown out of a car at any speed, you’re likely to be injured worse than if you were tied down by a seat belt in a crash, even against a heavy object. Deaths like Dale Earnhardt’s are a one-in-a-million shot. And let’s not forget injuries from going through the window, or the “dice in a box” phenomenon, of two or more people in a car banging into each other.

    It’s likely the same goes for idiots who refuse to wear lifevests. They “think” that being thrown out of the boat is a good thing, that nothing will hit or hurt them because they land on water. Wrong. Even if they don’t collide with the other boat as they are ejected, other bodies in a boat, or objects in the water, those “thrown clear” are still quite likely to be knocked unconscious or at least dazed by the impact with the water.

    A person can’t swim when unconscious. A lifevest will keep the person’s head out of water and able to breath, even if it doesn’t prevent against injury. I’d rather wear one of those old “horse collar” lifevests than nothing, even if they are awkward and uncomfortable. At least they are guaranteed to work.

    Then again, I don’t like going out on the water in the first place.

    .

  13. #13 hoary puccoon
    August 6, 2011

    informania@10–

    Interesting use of statistics, except that you failed to hold constant whether the people wearing life jackets can swim or not. I would guess you’d find more non-swimmers than swimmers in the 13% who wear life vests; more swimmers than non-swimmers in the 87% who don’t. In fact, I’d guess the negative correlation between knowing how to swim and wearing life vests would be extremely high. It could even be that non-swimmers are *more* likely to survive being thrown overboard than swimmers are– because the non-swimmers aren’t as likely to be withoutlifevests.

  14. #14 Stephanie Z
    August 6, 2011

    And it’s not 10% of the survivors. It’s 10% minus those under the age of 14 if you want a steady basis for comparison.

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    August 6, 2011

    informania: My data are for all people in Minnesota. You are comparing this with something quite different. The toddler/non toddler line is not at 12 or 13 years old. The shift from wearing vs. not wearing vest at 12/13 is almost certainly by statute. I’m not going to critique your conclusion because you didn’t make a case. For anything. Or base your argument on anything. Please try again!

  16. #16 Russell
    August 6, 2011

    Hoary, boats don’t sink that quickly. At least, not the boats typically used for coastal work or open water. I knew one couple whose wood boat was always sinking. They would leave one port with its garboard leaking, and arrive at another three weeks later with it leaking more. They sailed thousand of miles with their boat slowly sinking from one port to the next.

    P. Smith, just about all analogies with cars fail. Central Texas has seen several fatal accidents on inland lakes where people were thrown from a fast motorboat run aground. Lifevests don’t much save someone from a broken neck. A seatbelt might help. Except, boats generally don’t have seatbelts. What was needed was a sober helm who knew what he was doing. A large part of the problem is boats being “driven” like a car.

    Beach cats and sailing dinghies easily capsize, and those are where lifevests are de rigour. Larger keelboats present somewhat different issues. I don’t much credit the argument that you need a lifevest because the boom might knock you out before you hit the water. A boom hitting you in the head might also kill you or break your neck. If you’re suffering a concussion on tacks and jibes, you’re suffering a problem as dire as falling overboard without a lifevest.

    I’m not arguing against lifevests. I’m just pointing out that boats vary a lot, circumstance afloat varies even more, and black-and-white rules are less useful than judgment.

  17. #17 hoary puccoon
    August 7, 2011

    Russell @16–

    You’ve known *one* couple whose boat was slowly sinking? Heck, I’ve known lots. I’ve *been* [half of] “a couple whose boat was slowly sinking.” Luckily, we could get it bailed out simply by going on the other tack.

    I also knew a woman who lost a friend because he put on his life vest below decks. The fishing boat he was working on was rammed. It turns out, when one boat is rammed by another, the rammed boat can go down really, really fast. (Most of the crew got out and survived, which is how the woman knew exactly what happened to her friend.)

    Boats that hit floating containers, “dead heads” [barely floating logs] whales, etc. have also been known to go down really quickly. In fact, one fiberglass sloop sank amazingly fast after the skipper wrapped his jibsheet around the propeller. (In that case, he was very close to land and was able to run aground before it sank completely.)

    So, just because one couple’s boat was constantly, slowly sinking does NOT mean “boats don’t go down that fast.” And when some sailors put on the auto pilot and sleep underway with no one on watch– another dangerous practice, although one single-handers can’t avoid– the boat doesn’t even have to sink all that fast to make wearing a life vest below decks lethal.

    That is not, of course, an excuse not to wear a harness when far from land, or to neglect wearing a life vest for an afternoon spin in an open boat on a lake.

  18. #18 Greg Laden
    August 7, 2011

    You should all know that I’ve actually been in a sinking boat. It is a disturbing experience. It is interesting that among the thousands of people who have read that essay, no one ever asked about life vest!

    Anyway, I find reading about the drowing cases to be rather instructive. Here’s the thing: If you are ON a boat (not IN a boat) you should have your life vest on for maximum safety. The edge of a boat is infinitesimally wide, the slipperyness of a surface is independent of the size of the boat (but linked to the function of the boat) and although there is a lower chance of a lager boat capsizing, the larger the boat the greater the fall (and falling haphazardly onto water is not safe). Hey, I know a guy who was in charge of sonar on a naval vessel which a few years ago lost a crew member… the guy was last seen heading to the stern with the trash which was his job to dump into the sea (which raises some other questions). The seas were flat and calm and clear. He was not noticed missing for a hour or so. They turned the boat, a destroyer or something big like that, around and tracked their course backwards and found the guy bobbing up and down in the water waiting to be rescued.

    Yes, he was wearing a vest.

    But yes, context is important and there are nuances!

  19. #19 cfrost
    August 7, 2011

    I’m a fisheries biologist and have spent literally years in boats in fresh and salt and cold and warm water. I’ve fallen into the water several times (notably into the Bering Sea in January) and on each occasion it was unexpected. If you’re not wearing flotation gear when you should you’re doing the rest of us a favor by helping natural selection remove the stupid.

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