Spending a day or weekend on board a boat on the Chesapeake Bay is a summer rite of passage. Here’s how to enjoy your adventure safely.
I can’t recommend any and all forms of boating on the Bay (or river, or creek, or lake) enough. It’s provided me with endless fond memories—rowing on Weems Creek, canoeing and kayaking all over the state with classmates, and sailing on the Severn with my family and USNA sponsor siblings—and continues to now, whether while aboard my dad’s Ranger Tug or during my every-weekend paddleboarding/photo-taking excursions on Ego Alley and the Severn River.
That said, drowning is an ever-present risk while on the water. As Julie Brown, Boating Education Coordinator for the DNR Natural Resources Police, reports, drowning is the cause of death in 77% of all deaths on the water, and 84% of the 449 people who drowned in 2018 (out of 633 total deaths on the Bay) were not wearing a life jacket.
“Life jackets are the key to preventing a bad outing on the water,” says Brown. “Because the simple fact is that you at least have a chance if you are wearing a life jacket.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) are featured on the long list of precautions to take on the water—not only to keep yourself safe but also, in many cases, because they’re the law.
- Some of these measures include:
All children under the age of 13 wearing a United States Coast Guard (USCG) approved PFD while on the deck of a 21-foot-or-less vessel that’s underway (not moored or anchored) and being used recreationally on Maryland waters, and children under four wearing a PFD with additional features including a strap between the legs, an inflatable headrest and high collar, and a web handle. For parents facing resistant children, Jones notes that wearing a PFD yourself can provide powerful behavior-modeling motivation and, unlike a few decades ago, there are plenty of styles, colors, and designs to choose from these days.
- All vessels carrying at least one USCG-approved wearable Type I, II, III, or V PFD for each person on board – as I first learned after receiving an $85 ticket three years ago, this includes paddleboards! – and all 16-foot-or-longer vessels also carrying at least one throwable Type IV device.
- Never riding on the bow, sitting on the edge, or leaning over the edge of a moving boat (even to get your favorite hat, says Jones!), as a fall could quickly result in a serious injury or even death from a propeller.
- Creating a float plan, including where you’re going and when you plan to be back, and sending it to family or friends – my M.O. is simply texting this to my dad.
- Wearing sunscreen and bringing sunglasses, a hat, a first aid kit, plenty of water and, if possible, a cell phone – I’m firsthand proof that, much to my surprise, an iPhone will keep working after a good 15-second submersion.
- Limiting your alcohol consumption, as Brown points out that the effects of just one drink on the water equal those of three drinks under normal circumstances.
- Never operating a vessel without high-powered lights (kayaks, Sea-Doos, paddleboards, etc.) before sunrise or after sunset, both because you won’t see obstacles and other vessels won’t see you.
- Being very mindful of both water and air temperatures, especially in spring and fall and especially on smaller vessels, as Brown notes that hypothermia can occur in water that’s as warm as 70 degrees – and that even if it’s 80 degrees outside in May, as is often the case in Maryland, falling into 60-degree water can still result in cold shock and water rushing into your lungs.
- Not leaving your vessel if you’re in distress given that, even if the shore looks close enough to swim to, factors such as wind and current make doing so far too risky.
- And finally, not jumping overboard to try to help someone in distress, as Jones says their natural reaction will be to use you as a ladder and thus make you another person who needs to be rescued, but instead calling for help when you see them.
Whether you’re swimming or boating with your family and friends or enjoying the water on your lonesome, it’s essential to recognize that, while all the lifeguards and lifejackets in the world can’t prevent all potential drownings, vigilant bystanders can help them succeed.
This is the case because unlike what’s shown on TV shows and in the movies, drowning usually happens quietly, with those in distress unable to get enough air or compose themselves enough to flail their arms or call for help even once – especially children, for whom drowning is the second cause of accidental death.
“Drowning is silent,” says Goszkowski. “Parents may think that if their child falls in the water, they will hear splashing and screaming. But many times children slip under the water silently, and people near or in the pool have even reported hearing nothing unusual during drowning incidents.”
Fortunately, Dr. Francesco A. Pia described the Instinctive Drowning Response, “a person’s attempts to avoid the actual or perceived suffocation in the water,” in an article in ON SCENE, The Journal of U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue, back in 2006, and his signs of drowning have been very well-cited since – including by Jones. They include:
1. No Calls for Help!
Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help because the respiratory system was designed for breathing, with speech the secondary, or overlaid, function.
Further, drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water and are not above it long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out.
2. No Arms Waving for Help!
Drowning people cannot wave for help because nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface in an attempt to lift their mounts out of the water enough to breathe.
Very importantly, this also prevents them from moving toward a rescuer or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
3. No Kicking!
People’s bodies remain upright in the water throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, with no evidence of a supporting kick, and they only struggle on the surface of the water for 20-60 seconds before submersion occurs unless rescued by a trained lifeguard.
So what can you do if you see someone in distress?
Call a lifeguard, call 9-1-1, and throw them a lifesaving device.
But follow all of the very many tips above, and hopefully you won’t have to.