It was a July 4th 31st birthday celebration for an accomplished young woman, a former Vanderbilt track star and attorney. She and several friends and family members, including her sister, a teacher, rented a pontoon boat for her birthday party. Without warning, the boat started to take on water after being hit by a strong wave. It tipped, and the woman celebrating her birthday and her sister fell from the boat and drowned. Neither was wearing a life vest.
In just a matter of minutes, a special day turned tragic, and now, loved ones are left shocked and grieving.
Sadly, it’s not an isolated incident. The news is full of similar stories. A man in North Carolina jumped off a boat to retrieve a fallen item and never resurfaced. Authorities were not sure if the man was wearing a life jacket. Another drowning victim in North Carolina fell off a boat into a pond while fishing.
These deaths were preventable if only the victims had worn life vests. In 2020, the Coast Guard counted 5,265 boating accidents that involved 767 deaths and 3,191 injuries. Where the cause of death was known, 75 percent of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 86 percent were not wearing a life jacket.
It Can Happen to Anyone
Even if you’re a strong swimmer, not wearing a life vest can mean the difference between life and death. Events can happen quickly and unexpectedly, and boaters might not have time to grab their life jacket before finding themselves in the water. On the other hand, maybe you removed your life jacket because you were too warm, or perhaps you felt it was too cumbersome. So while a life jacket may not be the trendiest fashion statement, it’s a fashion accessory that you shouldn’t forgo.
Several models of light and comfortable inflatable belt-pack or over-the-shoulder life jackets can be worn while fishing or enjoying time on a boat.
Life Jackets Save Lives!
But, it needs to be the right life jacket. For example, life jackets are made according to a person’s size and weight. There are also men’s and women’s life jackets and specialized life jackets for various sports (wakeboarding, skiing, kayaking, etc.). So, if you’re a 110-pound female wakeboarder, an all-purpose men’s XL life jacket will not be a good fit for you.
Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, and Myths About Life Jackets
If you’re a large person, you need the largest-sized life vest.
Adult life jackets are sized by chest circumference, not by body weight.
The US Coast Guard sets the standards for all USCG-approved life jackets. The minimum flotation for the most common recreational type, Type III is 15.5 pounds.
The Coast Guard has determined that most adults need an additional 7 to 12 pounds of flotation to keep their heads above water. Muscle tissue is less buoyant than fatty tissue. Of course, if you’re an ultra-fit athlete with a low body mass index (BMI), you may not need all that additional flotation. Still, most realistically, most people probably need that extra flotation.
It’s best to buy a life jacket kids can grow into
This is a common misconception that can be very dangerous. If a life jacket is not a snug fit, a child can slip out of it, or the jacket can ride up, making it difficult for them to keep their head above water.
To check for a proper fit for a child’s life vest, cinch up the adjustment straps, starting from the bottom. Then, lift on the shoulder straps. If the jacket stays in place, it’s a good fit. However, if the jacket rides up and the front comes up to the chin or higher, it’s a dangerous fit. If it still rides up after you’ve tightened the straps and repeated the lifting test, you’ve got the wrong jacket or size.
Youth-size life jackets are designed to fit young people weighing 50 to 90 pounds, and child-size jackets are designed to fit a child weighing 30 to 50 pounds. Getting a life jacket that fits your young person properly is essential.
You can try leg straps if you can’t find a jacket that doesn’t ride up. Some jackets come with leg straps. If the jacket doesn’t come with them, you can usually secure them to the lower side adjustment straps.
As children grow, they need larger clothing. The same is true with life jackets. To keep your child in a good-fitting, safe life jacket as they grow, you will probably have to buy them 2 to 4 different jackets. It’s inexpensive insurance; don’t skimp on their safety.
How To Shop for a Life Jacket
Purchasing a life jacket online is NOT recommended unless you’re already very familiar with the life jacket brand and how it fits. If you want to buy a life jacket online, go to a local store and try on the life jackets beforehand.
What to look for when choosing a life jacket:
Stamp of Approval
The life jacket must be United States Coast Guard (USCG) approved. Look for the USCG stamp on the inside of the life jacket. It’s usually near the sizing and other valuable information.
Make sure the life jacket is the correct size. The life jacket will ride up around your face if it’s too big. If it’s too small, it will not be able to keep your body afloat. Make sure it has a snug fit but allows you to move freely. Make sure there is no excess room above the arm openings.
A life vest must be in good and serviceable condition to work properly. So before you put on a life jacket, make sure it isn’t ripped, torn, or waterlogged.
The vest-type is the best type of life jacket for recreational boating. These jackets are “ready to use.” They can turn a person who falls into the water face-up to breathe without the person taking any actions to float. Vest-type jackets are the best choice for calm inland waters, where fast rescue is likely. Choose an offshore life jacket that is more buoyant for rough or more remote waters.
A great fitting USCG-approved life jacket in excellent condition only works if you wear it! Each person on a boat must have a life jacket and wear it.
Take precautions to ensure your day on the water is fun and safe! The Stop Drowning Now Water Safety Challenge is a program that communities can host that includes hands-on training on fitting and the proper way to use a life jacket as part of its water competency training.
Drowning is preventable, and wearing life jackets on and near the water is one of the best ways to be safe. Learn more with a free water safety presentation. Together we can save lives!