- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2003

Boating safety educator Jeff Decker says one of the best tips he can share with boaters is likely to be ignored. “Statistically, 80 percent of all the people who drown could have been saved with life jackets,” says Mr. Decker, boating education coordinator with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in Richmond.

It’s a sobering statistic, and just one of the lessons to be learned at boating education courses held throughout the region.

The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) reports that more than 12.7 million recreational boats and personal watercraft vehicles are registered nationwide. Fortunately, District area residents can choose from a wealth of boating safety classes.

Curious boaters can check out Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources Web site, www.dnr.state. md.us/ and follow the boating links, or visit www.uscgaux.org and click on the “District 5SR” button to find classes offered by the Coast Guard.

Mr. Decker is quick to bring up the life jacket lesson, in part because of newer, less obtrusive jackets that could convince many who refuse to wear them to change their minds.

Today’s inflatable, one-size-fits-all models can last a lifetime, he says. It’s an investment too few boaters make, he adds.

“People have their own safety helmets, their own safety gear for whatever sport [they play]. … When it comes to boating, they leave the safety equipment up to the owner of the boat,” he says.

The new life jackets run between $70 and $140, he says, about double the price for a standard life vest. The jackets also can collapse to about the size of a “fanny pack” and be worn unobtrusively around the waist. Boaters can still opt for the traditional jackets, he says. Whatever the choice, the jacket should fit snugly — and comfortably — on the user.

“The best life jacket is the one that somebody will wear,” he says.

A good fit ensures the life jacket won’t ride up on the user and will keep the person afloat. And wearing them can avoid incurring a misdemeanor charge, the penalty for not having the proper number of life vests aboard a vessel. Driving a boat while intoxicated, a more serious offense, also is a misdemeanor.

But life jackets are a small part of the overall boating safety scene. The bulk of boating accidents are caused by operator error, rather than boat malfunctions or weather factors. Among the reasons for the errors are driver inexperience, excessive speed and reckless operation.

In eight out of 10 fatalities, the boat’s operator had not completed a boating safety education course.

The majority of boating education courses are devoted to power boats, he says, partly funded by taxes levied against boat fuels. Class prices vary depending on the group in charge of them. Those run by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries are free, while classes with the Coast Guard Auxiliary vary in price depending on the number of students and books needed to complete the course.

Adult boaters born before July 1, 1972, are not required to take boating education courses. Those born after that date must have a boating certificate — earned by taking a boating education course through established groups like the Coast Guard Auxiliary — before becoming a boat’s skipper. The classes typically last at least eight hours, not including a final examination.

While most courses focus on power boats, they do touch upon other boats, from canoes to sailboats, Mr. Decker says.

Most of those seeking boating safety information are between the ages of 40 and 55.

“They’ve got a little more expendable funds to put into boating … and the kids are starting to grow up,” he says.

His classes also explore boating laws. Some regulations are mandatory in every state, like the need for life jackets and fire extinguishers onboard a vessel. The Safe Boating Act of 1971 set those standards in motion. Other laws, such as the hours during which power boats can zip across the waters, vary from state to state.

Mr. Decker recommends visiting your state’s main Web page and looking for the agency that oversees boating, or checking out NASBLA’s home page at www.nasbla.org.

Boating safety instructor Dave Wells knows too well the importance of his lessons. The public education officer with the United States Coast Guard remembers how a classmate of his died many years ago during a boating mishap.

His 13-year-old classmate tried to swim away from a capsized boat and drowned, Mr. Wells says. Swimming away from a boat is “something you learn in the movies,” he says. It’s also the wrong advice.

“If the boat does swamp, stay with it … it’s not going to sink,” he says.

Generally, if someone falls into the water, he says the first step is to slow down or stop the boat. Whoever sees the person go over should yell “man overboard” and keep a constant eye on the person while pointing to him or her.

“The person handling the boat can’t look at the person,” he says.

The boat driver should circle around to the person while someone else throws a flotation device to, not at, the person.

It’s also a good idea to tie a rope line under the arms of the person before helping him or her back on board.

“People in the water are slippery,” Mr. Wells says, and the rope can help rescuers hold onto the person being hauled up.

One way to avoid falling into the water in the first place is to always keep three points — both feet and at least one hand — touching the boat at all times.

John Matalak, chief of program operations for the Coast Guard’s office of boating safety, says all boats should have someone constantly observing the surroundings to prevent possible collisions.

That’s particularly a concern on the Potomac River, Mr. Matalak says.

“People are so familiar with the area, they start talking to people and they lose track of what their purpose is, to maintain a good, vigilant watch,” Mr. Matalak says.

That vigilance is even more important if a boat is pulling a water-skier. In these cases, someone should make sure to watch the water-skier all the time, to make sure the skier isn’t heading toward swimmers, debris or shallow water.

One key safety factor can be taken care of before ever stepping aboard a boat — making sure all the boaters are sober enough to ride.

One-third of all accidents involve alcohol in some way, he says. And it isn’t just the driver who needs to be sober. An inebriated passenger is more likely to fall overboard or otherwise cause problems on the boat.

Those who are on medication also should check with their doctors to see if the rigors of the waters — or sun exposure — could heighten the medication’s side effects.

Kimberly Hermes, an editor at the Lexington, Ky.-based National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, says boating involves another danger, one many people don’t associate with the activity — carbon monoxide poisoning.

“People don’t realize even though they’re outdoors, carbon monoxide can be an issue,” Miss Hermes says.

Boaters can be at risk if they swim near the engine’s exhaust area, particularly if the boat’s ladder is near the engine.

The more common, and trendy, way to become exposed to carbon monoxide is by “teak surfing,” grasping the teak wood swim platform at the end of a boat to be dragged through the water.

A report by the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, says there have been 383 cases of boating-related carbon monoxide poisonings since 1984, 67 of them fatal.

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