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Life jackets need to be part of wardrobe

National Safe Boating Week started Saturday, and the message is one that is very familiar, but can never be repeated too often. Boating safety is a drum we need to pound on at every opportunity.

Just as our lakes, rivers, and reservoirs are a source of unparalleled recreational opportunities, they are also places where fun and relaxation can turn to tragedy in the blink of an eye. Adhering to some simple safety guidelines can make the difference in many scenarios.

Whether the activity is fishing, water skiing, kayaking or just a casual cruise called pleasure boating, don’t approach the water without proper preparation, and an awareness of your surroundings. The worst companion on the water is an unrealistic sense of security, regardless of your boating experience.

The latest numbers from the U.S. Coast Guard indicate that Ohio ranks 10th nationally in boating accidents, and 12th in the country in the number of fatalities associated with boating. The Buckeye State experienced 13 boating-related deaths in 2013.

According to the BoatUS Foundation, the number of boating accidents in the U.S. decreased by 10 percent in 2013, while the number of boating deaths decreased by 14 percent, compared to 2012.

Before we celebrate the drop in accidents and deaths, we find that one startling trend continued, with drowning determined to be the cause of death in three out of every four recreational boating fatalities in this country, and in 84 percent of those cases, the individuals who drowned were not wearing life jackets.

In an effort to continue the emphasis on wearing a life jacket at all times while out on the water, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has kicked off National Safe Boating Week with a series of “Ready, Set, Wear It!” life jacket safety awareness events at eight Ohio State Park marinas, and at Landfall via their website.

The sessions are designed to hammer home once again the critical importance of safe boating, and how wearing life jackets is a huge element of that approach. The events highlighted how life jackets have evolved from what was big and awkward to wear into something much more comfortable. Some of the newer varieties are very thin and lightweight, and self-inflate if the boater goes into the water.

“The introduction of the inflatable life jacket about 10 years ago and its subsequent U. S. Coast Guard approval has made boating much safer — as long as you wear it,” said Captain Henry E. Marx of Landfall Navigation, which has been supplying boaters with quality equipment for more than three decades.

“Prior to the inflatables, life jackets were bulky, hot, and uncomfortable to wear before entering the water. Now you can wear [an inflatable] and be assured that if you go in the water conscious or unconscious, you will float face up.”

Marx said drowning remains the fifth leading cause of death in the United States, and the chances of drowning while wearing a Coast Guard approved life vest are just 1.5 percent, while the chances of drowning while going without the life vest are six times greater.

Many boaters will dutifully outfit their boat with the required number of Coast Guard approved life jackets, but these are frequently stored in out-of-the-way compartments where they will be difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve quickly in the event of an emergency. Having the life jackets easily accessible still falls short of meeting the real safe boating standard.

“Don’t just have your life jacket close by, wear it,” said Gary Obermiller, chief of the ODNR’s Division of Watercraft. “If an accident occurs and you suddenly end up overboard, a life jacket will keep your head above water and could save your life.”

The experts also warn boaters about the possibility of developing something called “boater’s hypnosis” while out on the water. This condition comes as a response to sun, wind, noise, vibration, and motion, and brings on fatigue, which can greatly reduce reaction time. If this condition is combined with alcohol or drug use, there could be a significant drop in the boater’s coordination, judgment, and reaction time.

Many groups, both government and non-governmental, are combining their efforts to emphasize boating safety throughout the week, with the hope the message resonates with boaters.

“Throughout the year hundreds of people drown or die in boating accidents and the majority of the deaths could have been prevented,” said Pam Doty, National Water Safety Program Manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“We want you to come out and enjoy your national lakes and rivers and return home safely, so please wear a life jacket and boat friendly."

FREE INSPECTIONS: Boat safety equipment inspections will be offered from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Monday at Maple Street Boat Ramp, Front Street at Maple Street, Perrysburg. Inspections will also take place at Ritter Park, 1111 W. Riverview Ave., Napoleon, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Friday, and at Mary Jane Thurston State Park, 1466 State Rt. 65, McClure, from 7 to 8 p.m. the same day.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

Life jackets need to be part of wardrobe