Make life jackets part of your safe summer boating experience

Kevin Passon

As summer approaches in the Upper Midwest, the allure of boating draws many to the picturesque lakes and rivers.

However, amidst the excitement, it’s crucial to remember the importance of following safe boating guidelines.

“Your biggest piece of safety equipment on a boat is your life jacket,” said Lt. Darren Kuhn, boating law administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “Safety is an important part of water fun. Wisconsin rivers and lakes can be relaxing and family-friendly places to spend a spring day when you put safety first and respect the water.”

The legal mandate in Wisconsin requires boats to carry wearable life jackets for every person on board, with larger boats also needing throwable devices. Despite this longstanding law, Kuhn notes that insufficient life jackets remain a common violation.

“Eighty percent of boating fatalities nationwide are a result of drowning, making it the number one cause of death in boating accidents,” he cautions. “When worn, they’re proven to work,” he said, urging boaters to consistently wear life jackets rather than just keeping them on board.

It’s also important to inspect your life jackets for wear and tear. Most inflatable jackets should be checked for leaks every six months, and the cartridge should be checked before each use. The jacket manufacturer’s website should have instructions on how to check your life jacket status.

Jennifer Doering, emergency medicine physician assistant with Aspirus Health, echoes Kuhn’s sentiments.

“It’s important that we all have life jackets available, and not only just available, but we have them there and ready and on, preferably,” she said.

In addition to wearing a life jacket, Doering recommends the following proactive safety measures:

• Vigilance around children while swimming, as they can swiftly slip under the water.

• Abstinence from alcohol during swimming or boating activities.

• Awareness of water depth before jumping or diving.

“Recent changes in weather mean some of the lakes aren’t quite as deep as they were previously,” Doering said. “It’s important to remember to check, especially before diving headfirst.”

Additionally, Kuhn recommends the following precautions:

• Heightened caution during periods of increased boat traffic, particularly on holiday weekends.

• Reduced speed, especially in unfamiliar waters or for less experienced boaters.

• Avoidance of night boating due to reduced visibility and higher collision risks.

• Monitoring weather forecasts and refraining from water activities during storms.

• Prohibition of bow riding, or sitting on the front of the boat with feet dangling off, while the boat’s motor is running, a practice that can lead to serious propeller injuries.

• Abstinence from alcohol, especially when taking prescription medications.

“The other thing about alcohol is that people don’t realize how it affects people differently on the boat,” Kuhn said. “Being out in the sun, the wave action, generally not eating a lot while out on the water — all that plays a part in how fast alcohol affects the body.”

Both experts stress the importance of education and preparation. Kuhn encourages boaters to take safety courses and familiarize themselves with boating basics, while Doering underscores the need for planning, designated drivers and prioritizing safety in all water-related activities.