Lifejackets have been saving lives for hundreds of years with the first recorded history of use by Norwegian seamen who used simple blocks of wood. The forerunner of the modern lifejacket was invented by Captain Ward of England. In 1854 he created a cork vest designed to be worn by lifeboat crews for both weather protection and buoyancy. This early style of lifejacket can be seen in the movie the Titanic. It was a useful survival tool but eventually gave way to those made of Kapok. Kapok was a softer alternative to cork which was good news to navy seamen who often wore their lifejackets whenever aboard, including even when they were sleeping.
Now, no one is suggesting that you wear your lifejacket when you sleep aboard, but the message that the Canadian Safe Boating Council has been delivering for years; “Boat Safe, Boat Smart – Wear It” and “It’s Your Life….Preserve It” are certainly relevant for most other times we are aboard especially in smaller open boats. The question is, why do we continue to ignore those messages, putting ourselves, our loved ones and friends at risk?
Interestingly, CSBC and Smart Risk’s research demonstrates that most of us insist that our children wear their PFDs. However the willingness to wear a PFD drops from 85 percent for children under 5, to a low of 37 percent by the time they reach their teen years and continues to decline significantly after the teen years. So what’s the result of all this complacency and unwillingness to wear a PFD?
Across Canada, 80 percent of recreational boaters who drown each and every year were not wearing a lifejacket or Personal Floatation Device (PFD). Most of these drownings occur in small open power boats, accounting for 60 percent of these preventable deaths. A majority of these victims were males between the ages of 19 and 35, out for a day of fishing. An average of 140 unnecessary drownings occur every year.
Many boaters who drown believe they are good swimmers, so they feel that having a PFD on board and within easy reach is good enough. But what good is a PFD that is stored under a seat or under the bow going to be when the unexpected happens? Most drownings happen unexpectedly when small boats capsize or someone falls overboard. The PFD that you leave behind is not much use, especially in cold water.
Death from sudden cold water immersion happens very, very quickly. Research by Dr. Michael Tipton, a leading expert in cold water immersion, has shown that the “gasp reflex” from sudden immersion has led to more deaths than previously known. The reaction causes a sudden uncontrollable gasp, followed by 1-3 minutes of hyperventilation. The initial gasp can cause you to inhale up to 2 litres of water, causing drowning. This volume of water will cause an individual not wearing a PFD to sink and not re-appear. If the first gasp of water is not fatal, hyperventilation will lead to the rapid onset of severe hypothermia and death.
There are many new, improved (and approved by Transport Canada) lifejackets and all are all designed to be lightweight and comfortable. There is a wide range of styles and colours and all are designed for the type of boating you do and conditions you face. Whether it be paddling, sailing, fishing, water sports or riding personal water craft, there is a lifejacket suited for it.
The new face on the waterfront are the inflatables; the most comfortable, lightweight lifejackets you can buy and are available in vest or pouch styles. Inflatable jackets come standard with manual inflation, but a few models are available with automatic inflation, which instantly inflates the lifejacket when you hit the water. To meet Canadian Small Vessel Regulations, inflatable lifejackets must be worn at all times when aboard and underway and may not be worn by a person under the age of 16, or weighing less than 36.3 kilograms.
If you don’t wear it, it won’t work.