“Accidental drowning” means preventable

When I was sixteen, I received some devastating news.  One of my childhood friends had died.   It was “an accident.”  He’d been fishing from a canoe on one of the lakes, and the canoe had tipped over.   He drowned.   It was a shock, because we were all excellent swimmers.  Summers usually found us constantly in the water swimming.  To this day, none of us know the precise details that caused him to drown, but one thing I do know:  He wasn’t wearing a life preserver.I was reminded of that by some newspaper stories the past two weeks.   Memorial Day weekend, a man canoeing on Lake George had his canoe tip over, and he drowned.  Just a few days ago, a couple was kayaking on the lake, and a boat hit them.  The woman had to be rescued, the man died.  All of them had life preservers (personal flotation devices) with them – but they weren’t wearing them!  In the case of the man hit by the boat, it probably wouldn’t have mattered – but it might have.  Every year, each summer, I’ve seen stories like this.  People out in a canoe, or a rowboat, and something happens – and they drown.   None of them were wearing a life jacket.

For the past year, it has been the law in New York that you must wear a life preserver if you’re on a boat, canoe, or kayak.  The old law followed the Coast Guard rule that one flotation device has to be present for each person,  but didn’t have to be worn.  Now, it does.   People still haven’t grasped that, and some don’t want to follow it.   I do a lot of work from a boat, and I do wear one – I did even before it became the law.  I’ve heard every excuse for not wearing them.  They’re uncomfortable.  They’re hot.  You’re an excellent swimmer.  This boat won’t tip over.   You know what?  My friend was an excellent swimmer too.  He was better than I was, and I’m pretty good.  It didn’t save him.

You see, all sorts of things can happen that will prevent you from swimming.  Ever jump into  60 degree water?  It’s cold.  That’s nothing compared to what it’s like when you’re out on a lake just after the ice has gone out.  The “natural” reaction to the shock is to inhale – and that is the worst thing for you.  You say you’re a good swimmer?  Really?  Can you swim wearing work boots, pants, shirt, and a sweater or jacket?  You’d be surprised at how much they weigh when wet, and how hard it is to swim wearing them.  What if you hit your head while going over?  Can you swim if you’re knocked out, or if you’re disoriented by the blow?   I’ve seen all of those things happen.  In those cases, the person was lucky, and rescued quickly.  I’ve been the person doing it on purpose – swimming with lots of clothing on, as part of a training class.  I can tell you it’s the most rapidly exhausting thing I did, and I was happy it was over.   It didn’t matter that I could do 10 laps of the swimming pool in swimming trunks.  That all goes out the window when you’re weighed down.

Every year, I see the stories, and it’s preventable. All you have to do is wear a life jacket. You might be the world’s best swimmer, and you can still drown. Canoes and kayaks will tip over. It’s a given. You can fall off a boat, or the boat might hit something and sink. If you’re wearing a life jacket, it’s annoying, an irritating experience – but you’re alive. If you’re not, you can drown. Yes, it’s the law that you’re supposed to wear one – but you should also do it because it’s common sense.

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