- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2003

The U.S. Coast Guard says nearly 700 boaters die on the water every year and that around 80 percent of them did not wear life vests. It says 4,274 people were injured and 6,419 boating accidents caused more than $31million damage. Those are important numbers, yet we wonder how many people will pay attention to such stark statistics.

If you need a reminder on the importance of such things — particularly during National Safe Boating Week, Saturday through May 23 — come along with me on a couple of Mueller outings that turned out to be, well, not so typical for a guy who earns a good deal of his income from being on the water.

One of the worst was a summer morning in 1986 when I launched my 17-foot aluminum semi-vee boat in Cuckold Creek in Charles County for a morning of trotlining for blueclaw crabs.

When I began to pay out a baited, 1,000-foot-long trotline with the outboard motor humming in the predawn light, a part of my trotline became tangled in the motor’s propeller. Bummer, I thought, and killed the engine, then climbed over the boat seats to lift the motor up. As I locked the motor into the up position, with the prop completely out of the water, I had to lean over with my weight on the motor to untangle the nylon line and finger-sized eel baits.

With a sickening snap, the motor locking bracket broke, and the outboard fell back into the water in the running position. The instant downward movement of the motor catapulted me into the creek — and my life vest was still inside the boat.

I now was in 9 feet of water, ensnared in my own trotline. I kept my cool, got free of the line and then treaded water as the tide slowly pulled my little boat out into the Potomac River.

I’ll spare you the drama that ensued when I tried to catch up with the boat. I eventually reached it, hanging on the side of the boat totally exhausted. That’s when I saw my life jacket, a zip-up bass boater’s vest that cost a pretty penny. Somehow I reached the vest, was able to slip it on a little at a time, even zip it up. I looked up into the heavens and said, “Not today. No, not today. Today I’m going to live.”

What an incredibly important lesson I learned that somber, dangerous morning. From then on, my vest was on my body whenever the boat was in motion.

Yet another story that will raise the hair on the back of your neck came during a wading trip in the upper Potomac River around Harper’s Ferry. As is my custom, if I go wading for smallmouth bass, I use my zippered life vest that has pockets galore with Velcro fasteners to hold small boxes of spinners, grubs, jigs and such. The added benefit is that the moment I wade into a deep river pocket and lose footing, the flotation material in the vest allows me to glide across footless depths until I reach shallow enough water to continue walking on the river’s bottom.

A friend who waded with me that day didn’t believe in such safety measures and disappeared in a river hole, losing his hat and rod as he attempted to swim to shallower water. The river current, however, got a hold of him and carried his light body a good portion downstream. He was screaming for help, which was eventually provided. However, it scared him half to death. Nowadays, when he wades for fish, he wears a life vest and swears to the goodness of it.

So, please, listen to the National Safe Boating Council and the U.S. Coast Guard. Take water seriously. Wear your life jacket or life vest and don’t become a statistic. I can’t afford to lose readers.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected].

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