Our region’s outdoors got an international spotlight last week when some fortunate whitewater rafters plunged over the Ohiopyle falls on the Youghiogheny River. They were indeed fortunate to be rescued, but they’d also done one thing right. They’d worn lifejackets, known in boating parlance as PFDs — Personal Flotation Device.
For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the river, who might wonder how such a mishap could occur, the rescued boaters would have launched their raft at Confluence, then floated nine miles downstream to Ohiopyle on what’s known as the “Middle Yough,” the mildest span of river, whitewater-wise, until the Youghiogheny exits its last mountain gap above Connellsville. Approaching Ohiopyle, they somehow missed the prominent signs that warn all boaters they are approaching danger. The signs direct boaters to “take out” or exit on “river-left,” which is the left side when facing downstream, well upstream from the Rte. 381 bridge at Ohiopyle. From the take-out, a path leads uphill to a parking lot used by the hundreds of rafters, canoeists, and kayakers who safely enjoy the same stretch of river every summer weekend.
But once they passed the take-out point, bobbed under the Rte. 381 bridge, and slipped into the accelerating current rounding the left bend at Ohiopyle Borough, their odds of paddling hard to safety rapidly crashed. The terror they felt as the river carried them inevitably toward the brink can only be imagined.
But they were wearing the PFDs, and that’s why their fast-acting rescuers were able to pluck them from the froth. If there’s a silver lining in their calamity, it’s that more people might be prompted to wear a PFD when boating.
It’s amazing how many people you see on the water without a PFD, even on flowing currents or amid the windswept waves of big lakes. Apparently, their “thinking” is that they don’t need such insurance, or they wager they could quickly don a jacket at the moment an emergency happens. Statistics compiled by the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission prove otherwise.
According to the Coast Guard, during 2017, a total of 449 recreational boaters died by drowning in the United States. Among those, 381 (85 percent) were not wearing a lifejacket when their boat capsized, they fell overboard, or were immersed in the water in some way.
You can fine-comb the stats for an even more telling perspective. Open motor-boating accounts for the highest fraction of recreational fatalities. From such craft, 198 boaters drowned in 2017. Only 17 of those victims were wearing a PFD. Among canoeists, only nine of 41 drowning victims wore one. Twenty-eight people drowned that year from pontoon boats; only one was wearing a lifejacket. Rowboat fatalities totaled 19. One wore a PFD.
Even in kayaking, where there can be varied risk factors, beyond immersion alone, the stats show the wisdom of PFD use. Eighty-one kayakers drowned in 2017. Far less than half — 26 — were wearing their PFD at the time of their accident.
An unfortunate sight often encountered on local rivers and lakes is a heavily loaded canoe or raft in which the children will be fitted with PFDs but not the adults. The grown-ups’ concern for the kids is noted, but what they’re not accounting for is that they’d be better able to help the youngsters in an accident if they were wearing a PFD too.
If you’re a boater, the best practice is to resolve to never boat without a PFD. With practice, wearing a PFD becomes, like a seatbelt in a car.
Last week my wife Kathy and I took our little 3-year-old granddaughter canoeing for the first time. Before that, Kathy researched the right type and size PFD for a child of our granddaughter’s dimensions and age. She ordered a Coast Guard approved model with a “grab loop” at the back of the collar and a “crotch strap” between the legs. These features offer a way to snatch the child by the loop and prevent the jacket from pulling over the head. We enjoyed our paddle and the granddaughter understands we’re never launching a boat until we all don lifejackets.
I’ve found myself in several situations where I know it was a good thing I’d put on my PFD before venturing out. Emergencies can happen fast in currents and changing weather. Boaters should never feel intimidated about wearing a PFD because other people on the boat are not. It’s your life, and it’s your time to enjoy on the water. You’ll enjoy it more if you know you’ve done all you can to step back on dry land safely, ready to boat again soon.
In Pennsylvania, wearing a PFD is mandatory in colder months of the year, and for children in certain types of craft. But it’s better to save yourself the trouble of learning those technicalities and just wear a PFD all the time.
For information about proper sizes, models, and fitting of PFDs, check the web at www.uscgboating.org, or www.fishandboat.com. If you click on boating, you can find your way to the Fish and Boat Commission’s comprehensive page on PFDs.
Ben Moyer is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.