Don’t forget your life-jacket

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Summer in Alberta often means a weekend at the lake or a day kayaking in the sun. Whether you are in a motorized craft, cruising on a Sea-doo or paddling to your own rhythm, a properly worn life-jacket or personal flotation device is a common-sense safety item for anyone heading out into a boat. Newer styles of PFDs and even life-jackets make them easier to wear and more stylish to look at, and the law requires that everyone on a boat must have a flotation device available to them.

“The law states that everyone on board must have a flotation device but it does not state that you have to wear it,” said St. Albert resident Pat Sparrowe, who spends most of his summer weekends fishing in a number of derbies throughout the province.

Sparrowe, who is also the fishing manager at North Edmonton Wholesale Sports, explained that while life-jackets haven’t changed a lot in design or styling, PFD’s are getting more and more comfortable to wear, especially for the sports minded.

The difference between a life-jacket and a PFD is fairly basic, and in the instance of an accident could mean the difference between life and death.

A life-jacket will turn you face up in the water, even if you are knocked unconscious or otherwise injured. A PFD keeps you afloat, but not necessarily face-up.

Sparrowe agreed that life-jackets and PFDs can seem bulky and that many boaters go with the “It cannot happen to me!” attitude. But any contestant entering a fishing derby must wear a flotation device, at least when the boat is under power.

“In a derby, you must wear a life-jacket or PFD if the big engine is on,” he said, adding that as an active boater and fisher, he prefers to wear an inflatable PFD that is automatic.

“They are more expensive – starting at $169, but you can wear them without them feeling bulky. Two seconds after you hit the water, a carbon dioxide cartridge is punctured and automatically inflates. The manual inflatable PFDs are good, but you have to be able to pull the cord yourself when you hit the water,” he said.

Sparrowe explained that the inflatable PFDs are more user friendly for those who just want to look good in a boat and want to show off their tans. Whether automatic or not, the inflatable PFDs are lightweight and easy to wear.

“The problem is, I promise you, for those people who want to get a tan in their bathing suit, that PFD or life-jacket will come off,” he said.

For wake boarders and water skiers, Neoprene PFDs are the best option, Sparrowe said, because they allow more freedom of movement.

“For kayaking, I like a vest. It’s good because you can wear it under a jacket but it looks good with shorts. I like one with a waist belt so it doesn’t ride up. It just has mesh straps over the shoulders and there is nothing under the arms, just a front and back piece for buoyancy so it allows for more movement.”

Sparrowe takes his young children boating too, and ensures they wear classic life-jackets. They also go out as a family and kayak on the Sturgeon River, because he wants to teach his youngsters how to be safe in water.

“My kids don’t get on the boat if they don’t have a life-jacket on. They are bulky, especially for kids and I don’t blame them sometimes, but they wear their jackets,” he said, as he also expressed dismay at the families he has seen carrying tiny babies onto a motor boat before they cruise around a lake.

“The life-jackets are sized with the smallest for 20 to 30 pounds. You cannot put a life-jacket on a small, non-swimming baby. No one should take a newborn on a boat and they don’t sell smaller life-jackets for that very reason,” he said.

Inflatable PFDs are not approved for persons who are less than 16 years of age, or weigh less than 36.3 kilograms. The Canadian Red Cross recommends bright colours for better visibility in the water and the flotation devices must be appropriately sized to be effective. Sizing is based on chest measurements for adults and weight for children.

Safety tips

Canadian Red Cross statistics, which are on the redcross.ca/swim website, clearly show that many boating deaths could have been prevented.
The 16-year study showed that only 12 per cent of those who died by drowning were wearing a life-jacket or personal flotation device.
Red Cross Safety tips are as follows:
• Always wear a life-jacket or PFD: The life-jacket or PFD must fit properly. The Red Cross recommends trying the device first by wading into neck-deep water to see what happens when you float on your back. Make sure it keeps your head above water.
• Check to ensure the flotation device is Canadian approved. The wearer should be able to move his arms freely and should be able to bend at the waist. Belts and zippers should be in good condition so the device can be securely fastened. The flotation device should have a whistle.
• Know the weather conditions and don’t go boating if high winds or storms are forecast. If a sudden storm comes up, return to the nearest safety point. Do not go boating if it is getting dark.
“Sixty-four per cent of the immersion deaths resulted from a capsized vessel or a fall overboard with environmental conditions such as the weather, wind and waves as significant contributing factors,” the Red Cross site reports.
• Stay alert and in control. Never consume alcohol before or during a boating outing.
• Ensure the operator of the boat is experienced and knows how to handle the craft. Find out about the lake’s shores and shallow points before heading onto the water.
• Plan and prepare: Know where you are on the lake and where you can go in case of emergency. Have an emergency plan ahead of time.

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About Author

Susan Jones has been a freelance writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2009, following a 20-year career at the St. Albert Gazette. Susan writes about homes, gardens, community events and people.