McCallum: Personal Flotation Devices

Aug 2, 2018

One recent pristine summer afternoon, two people drowned on a popular southern Vermont lake. From a festive plastic float, they’d waved hello to others passing by on kayaks, paddle boards and canoes, including me.

I remember thinking that they were having a terrific time in the water, but also that neither one was wearing a life vest. Within the hour, their day on the lake ended tragically.

Each year in this country, drowning ends the lives of about 4,000 people; it kills more children under the age of four than anything else except birth defects. And while many of those young deaths occur in swimming pools, hot tubs and spas, older children and adults usually drown in natural settings like lakes, ponds, rivers and oceans.

Swimming and boating, two of our greatest warm weather joys, do not come without risk.

In Vermont, all boats, whether canoe, speedboat or kayak, are required to have a wearable flotation device for each person onboard. That’s the law. But I’m afraid too many of us take the word onboard literally, stuffing our life vests in the boat instead of wearing them. In effect, we pay more attention to sunscreen and picnic supplies than we do to our life saving equipment.

Once, while pushing my kayak into the waters of a reservoir in Plymouth, I was approached by a Vermont law enforcement officer who asked to see my PFD. Puzzled by the acronym, I wasn’t sure how to answer until he translated for me: Personal Flotation Device - my life jacket. I rummaged around behind my seat, produced one for his inspection, threw it back in the boat and happily paddled off. And like most people, I gave the encounter little thought.

But research tells us we have roughly sixty seconds of struggle on the water’s surface before submersion occurs. That’s our rescue window. Add inability to swim and its attending panic, and the window tightens. Yet the simple act of wearing a life vest enables us to avoid this scenario altogether.

I wish I’d reached out to the people on the plastic float that day as I paddled past. I wish I’d been proactive and cautioned them about their lack of life vests. That missed opportunity haunts me still.

But it’s reminded me not to just carry my life vest around.

And now, I put it on.