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Life Jackets: Your Second Most Important Safety Item

ArticleJune 14, 2011

Let’s talk about the second most important safety item you should have on when you go boating. That’s your life jacket, or Personal Flotation Device (PFD).

The inspiration for this piece came when accepting photo submissions from our readers. We got some really good ones; some with boaters in NRS gear… but they weren’t wearing PFDs! Our decision is that we won’t use any photos of adults on the water or kids on the water or playing near the water who aren’t wearing life jackets.

That’s not because we sell PFDs, it’s because we firmly believe in the life-saving ability of PFDs. There’s a reason they’re called life jackets.

In 2017, the US Coast Guard counted 4,291 boating accidents that involved 658 deaths. Where cause of death was known, 76% of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 84.5% were not wearing a life jacket.

Take a look at the Percentage of Death by Drowning in some of these categories: canoe, inflatable, kayak, pontoon and standup paddle board.

USCG: Number of deaths by vessel chart

And distressingly, percentages have been trending up over the years.

USCG: Percentage of deaths by vessel chart

Those are the statistics. The cold-hard fact is that most of these people didn’t have to die. A life jacket would have saved their lives and saved their family and friends the grief of their loss.

What’s the best type of life jacket to have? It’s the one you have on. PFDs are available in such a wide array of types, models and sizes that there’s a comfortable fit for everyone. Most boaters use Coast Guard Approved Type III, III/V and V models that have a minimum 15.5 pounds of buoyancy. Most adults only need an extra 7 to 12 pounds of buoyancy to keep their heads above water. So, choose a model that’s comfortable and one you’ll be able to wear all the time you’re on the water.

And don’t forget your children. They’re depending on you for their safety. A couple of our Associates were recently at a local lake and shuddered to see little toddlers without life jackets walking around on the docks while their parents fished in the icy water. Kids’ young growing bodies require extra care in fitting them. To work right, a PFD must fit snugly on a child. After adjusting, check for a good fit by picking the child up by the shoulders of the jacket. If the fit is right, the child’s chin and ears won’t slip through.

Oh, are you wondering what the MOST important safety item you should have on when you go boating? It’s your brain… switched on, thinking about your safety and the safety of those you boat with. If it’s working properly, you’ll be wearing your PFD… your Life Jacket.

Note from Clyde Nicely, NRS
While working for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service I helped recover four drowning victims. Also, a dear friend of mine and his son drowned while canoeing. They weren’t wearing their life jackets.

Handling those lifeless bodies and mourning the loss of my friends has left a powerful impression on me and made me a passionate believer in wearing PFDs.

It’s been over 40 years since my friends died and I still feel their loss, for all the times we didn’t get to spend together.

Please wear your life jacket. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for those you’d leave behind.

Boat Safe,