avoid an undig­ni­fied death

Yachts International - - Contents - By DuD­Ley Daw­son

Asoc­cer mom in my town drives a mini­van with the van­ity plate PB4UGO. Makes per­fect sense for a van full of kids, but ev­ery time I see it, I think about boat­ing safety.

Why? Well, let’s go back a few decades, to the time when Congress passed the Fed­eral Boat Safety Act of 1971 in re­sponse to a boat­ing fa­tal­ity rate that was un­ac­cept­ably high and con­tin­u­ing to climb.

To im­ple­ment the leg­is­la­tion, the U.S. Coast Guard had to draft reg­u­la­tions. Into that sit­u­a­tion dropped two newly minted USCG en­signs: me to the Of­fice of Mer­chant Ma­rine Safety and one of my col­lege class­mates to the Of­fice of Boat­ing Safety.

The new guys get the grunt work, so my buddy soon found him­self as the li­ai­son with the USCG’s out­side con­trac­tors. Know­ing that at the ripe old age of 24 I had 20 years of boat­ing al­ready be­hind me, he would oc­ca­sion­ally re­quest my tem­po­rary as­sign­ment to his group. We’d hap­pily go boat­ing for the cause, but also had the mun­dane duty, along with many ded­i­cated vol­un­teers at the Amer­i­can Boat and Yacht Coun­cil, of read­ing lots of re­ports and an­a­lyz­ing reams of data.

From that work emerged many sig­nif­i­cant con­clu­sions that found their way into the USCG reg­u­la­tions, the ABYC “Rec­om­mended Stan­dards and Prac­tices for Small Craft” (used for the safety cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of many new boats by the Na­tional Ma­rine Man­u­fac­tur­ers As­so­ci­a­tion) and beyond, even into the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Stan­dard­iza­tion codes that now form the boat­build­ing stan­dards for the Euro­pean Union.

The im­proved stan­dards have yielded re­mark­able re­sults dur­ing the past 40 years, re­duc­ing the boat­ing death rate by 80 per­cent, even as the num­ber of reg­is­tered boats has in­creased. For ev­ery five deaths back then, only one oc­curs to­day.

And yet, sadly, the death rate in one ac­ci­dent cat­e­gory re­mains stub­bornly steady. As part of the orig­i­nal data anal­y­sis, we found that a sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of men, fish­ing alone from small boats in the win­ter, were be­ing found drowned, tan­gled in fish­ing line or nets next to their cap­sized boats with high blood-al­co­hol lev­els—and with their pants un­zipped.

That last de­tail was the clincher. The sce­nario goes like this: Fish­ing guy, usu­ally in a small boat and wear­ing boots and heavy win­ter cloth­ing, drinks sev­eral beers, re­duc­ing his bal­ance and re­ac­tion time, and over­fill­ing his blad­der. He stands, pulls down his zip­per and steps to the side of the boat, of­ten putting one steady­ing foot on the gun­wale. The shift in weight causes the boat to flip, with the op­po­site gun­wale smack­ing him in the back of the head, knock­ing him out as he en­ters the freez­ing wa­ter, of­ten with­out a life­jacket.

The im­age would be com­i­cal if it weren’t so tragic. In fact, one of my co­work­ers suf­fered just such an undig­ni­fied fate on a Fe­bru­ary day more than 20 years ago, and the re­al­iza­tion that his death was both fore­see­able and avoid­able re­mains with me to­day.

Please don’t be­come a tragic statis­tic. Plan ahead be­fore step­ping from the dock into a small boat, or from your stern plat­form into your ten­der. Be mind­ful of the dan­gers, wear your life­jacket, leave the beer be­hind—and PB4UGO.

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