avoid an undignified death
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.