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WOODS ‘N’ WATER: It’s called a ‘life’ jacket for a reason

WOODS ‘N’ WATER: It’s called a ‘life’ jacket for a reason

This past week, May 16 to today, May 22, has been National Safe Boating Week.

However, this does not mean that safe boating practices should not be used throughout the boating and fishing season.

Here in Connecticut, it is the law that kayakers and canoers MUST wear a personal flotation device (PFD, a.k.a. life jacket). Yet I have lost count of the kayakers and canoers I have seen on some of our ponds and lakes not wearing a life jacket.

I guess they think they are invincible or accidents like dumping over only happen to someone else.

I have personally witnessed the tragedy and near tragedy of someone ignoring the need to have a PFD that fits them on board of any floating vessel, but especially on kayaks and canoes.

I will be the first to admit that at one time, in my younger years, I was one of those carefree outdoorsmen who thought I would never need a life jacket. After all, I knew how to swim.

I was on North Farms Reservoir a number of years ago in a cartop boat doing some fishing with a friend of mine. Somehow or another, while casting our lures, we shifted our weight in the boat and it began to lean into the water.

The water rushed into the boat and it sank!

Fortunately, the water was only about four feet deep and we were able to stand on the bottom to keep our heads above water. We were able to salvage the boat (and our lives), but lost all of our fishing tackle.

If we had been in deeper water, I shudder to think what the outcome might have been.

Way too many times folks going out onto the water think that as long as they have something that floats they are covered by the law that requires a PFD or other life-saving device.

Here’s an incident that is worth repeating if it saves one life. A number of years ago I was fishing Gardner Lake in Salem, Connecticut. There was no one on the lake and it was quite windy, when a fellow in a canoe came paddling by.

We exchanged pleasantries as he headed out into the middle of the lake to do some fishing. About a half hour later, I heard a strange sound over the wind. I looked out to where the sound was coming from and saw the end of the canoe sticking out of the water!

I quickly pulled in my fishing lines and headed out to the distressed canoer. When I got to him, he was in pure panic, claiming he could not swim and had asthma and was having a hard time breathing.

I was able to get my life jacket on him and then told him I was going grab onto the life jacket and sort of fall back into my boat. I also told him that when I did this he had to help me get him into the boat.

He kept saying, “I can’t!”

I finally convinced him that this was the only way he was going to be saved, and after a back-breaking effort I got him into my boat.

We were able to save his canoe, but all of his fishing tackle was lost. However, we did find what he was using for a PFD floating nearby. It was a child’s PFD and would never had fit him even if he had tried to put it on. He figured he was covered as long as he had the PFD in the canoe.

And this brings to mind yet another canoe tragedy regarding PFD use. A father and young son were canoeing one of the larger rivers in New England when a speed boat went by too close and the canoe capsized. Instead of wearing PFDs, they were using floating boat cushions, once again figuring that they were within the law by using them instead of a PFD.

The father came up. The son did not.

Again, this time up on Cape Cod, on the Atlantic Ocean side. A boat loaded with family members was cruising off of Head of the Meadow Beach in North Truro when a huge wave rocked the boat violently and a young girl was tossed overboard.

She was not wearing a PFD and never came up after going into the water.

A couple of days later, her remains washed up on a beach and the family was left to grieve and perhaps ponder, “What if she had been wearing a PFD?”

You are reminded that your life jacket can save you. Approximately 84 percent of those who drowned in boating accidents WERE NOT wearing a life jacket.

It goes without saying that the best life preserver to use is the one you are wearing. And, yes, I know that there are a number of kayakers, canoers and boaters out there who will ignore the fact that life preservers save lives.

One time I accompanied a Conservation Officer while he was on patrol on Gardner Lake and one of the boats he checked had two fishermen with zero life preservers. He took compassion on them and only gave them one $45 ticket.

“I could have given them two tickets, but I figured that one would make them realize that having a PFD aboard is the law,” the officer told me later.

Boaters are reminded that even as some of the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, social distancing should still be practiced for the safety of everyone.

Gatherings at state boat launch areas must be limited to no more than five people. Boaters should depart the ramp area as quickly as possible when launching and retrieving their boat.

Boat occupants should be limited to cohabitating family members only and, again, have groups no larger than five people.

Boaters are also reminded not to raft their vessels with other vessels and not to share equipment or vessel with other boaters.

So far, it has been an infamous year that will go down in history for having had such an impact on everyone, including those of us who turn to the outdoors for recreation. Making it safer is in our hands. We are all in this together.

See ya’ and God Bless America and watch over our troops and first responders.