Drowning is, as you would imagine, the primary job-related mortal danger to most mariners. Born without gills, we humans generally will not last very long when separated from our vessels or terra firma, or without some means of hands-free flotation (a.k.a. a life jacket or life raft). Despite possessing this knowledge, many experienced professional mariners share a casual attitude about this manageable risk with the very same pleasure boaters we so often deride for their stupid, risk-oblivious ways. This aspect of human behavior is not surprising in the least. It’s often very difficult to teach old dogs new tricks, so this post is aimed primarily at the newbie who may suspect that the on-the-job safety training they’ve been receiving may be lacking in certain respects. Remember this: the safety-factor that you enjoy is directly dependent on how well you are equipped and trained, whether that be by a training institution, your company, your fellow crew members, or yourself. The only piece of this 4-part equation you have any control over is the last.
To start with, the U.S. Coast Guard categorizes life jackets by Type. Whatever remains of the myth that the typical Type III work vest offers you anything more than token protection needs to be eradicated. They’re largely useless for the following reason: with relatively poor flotation characteristics that are inherent to their design and purpose, they don’t offer an unconscious wearer any head-out-of-water protection. Consequently, in even a light chop, a fully conscious wearer will have to expend a considerable amount of energy and effort just to remain upright, which makes assuming the life-prolonging HELP position pretty much impossible. It’s akin to trying to ride a unicycle on a surface that moves up and down and from side to side unpredictably, and few can do it without putting their arms out to stabilize themselves. Fewer still wear the vests with the straps tight enough to hold them firmly in place. So a fall overboard or off a dock, even from a relatively modest height, may result in the wearer being stripped of the vest as they submerge, possibly resulting in arm, shoulder and neck injuries, adding to their woes.
In the past these work vests were worn (and often not) because there were no good alternatives: trying to work in the usually-cumbersome Type I conventional jacket can be so frustrating that it brings up a whole other set of job-performance and safety issues. This design may be somewhat less bothersome, but still can cause problems. So conventional Type I’s are generally out on the grounds of practicality. For those who understand their major shortcomings, work vests are mostly just a feel-good gesture: perhaps necessary to comply with company safety policies, but with little real benefit. For those that don’t they provide a dangerous sense of false security. Better than nothing, maybe, but that’s about all. You can, and should, do much better.
The availability of well-designed inflatable vests that are easy to work in makes that whole argument moot. There’s a wide variety of models, many with the auto-inflation feature that can save the life of someone who has been been badly injured or knocked unconscious during their fall overboard. Float coats and anti-exposure work coveralls (your best choice) round out the arsenal available to us to counter the cold weather and water threat. But remember that, by themselves, they still only get a Type III flotation rating from the Coast Guard. The need for a life jacket, inflatable or not, to be worn over them remains if you want the very best level of drowning protection.
The better-designed and more rugged safety and survival gear isn’t cheap, nor should it be. But when compared to whatever value you place on your own life, it’s a huge bargain. Consider this: money spent on these items is an investment in yourself, with potentially enormous dividends if anything ever goes wrong, so don’t cheap-out on yourself. As for myself, I personally wear and recommend this inflatable vest by Mustang Manufacturing, which is now available in a high-visibility version as well. This float coat is now on my wish list, too. As you can probably tell, I’m partial to Mustang’s products. Here are their US and Canadian dealer locators. Stearns Survival also makes some worthy products, so have a look. While we’re on the subject, our Gear page has links to various manufacturers of safety and survival gear that will help you work safer and stand a better chance of going home alive and in one piece at the end of your hitch.
Now for el agua fría. The detrimental effects of cold water on you and your survival prospects cannot be overstated, and the video below shows in stark clarity how great the difference in your chances is depending on whether you’re wearing a life jacket or not. The immediate cold shock of a sudden cold-water immersion can set in motion a fatal chain of events, even before hypothermia gets started. And once it does, everything important to your survival suffers for it. Your motor skills, which you need for things like firing off flares, grabbing onto a thrown line or flotation device, climbing a ladder or scramble net, or simply helping your rescuers in their attempts to help you can decline quite rapidly. The ability to think clearly, or even rationally, is the next to go. Eventually you completely lose the desire for a frosty cold beer, and then you’re done for! As you can clearly see by the graph, for those of us who don’t possess a great natural abundance of positive buoyancy from heat-preserving blubber, cold water is an enemy that substantially shortens our already meager in-water survival time. So fatten up or outfit yourself properly.
Keep in mind that the water temperature of the Ohio shore of Lake Erie, when the video was filmed, was 45°F. Cold, certainly, but it can get much colder there and elsewhere. New York’s Hudson River, in early spring, is the consistency of a slurpee as the ice breaks up. Hell, the mean surface temperature for Portland, Me. comes in at only 60°F in high summer, and for only five months of the year does it average better than 50°F. Winters there are positively brutal. Alaska’s Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound have earned their bad reps, and Puget Sound isn’t exactly balmy either.
Shocking cold fact: that Canadian statistics for 2004 reveal that 43% of their drowning victims were within less than 2 meters of safety (defined as shore, boat, dock, etc.), and 66% were less than 16 meters away. And they died anyway. That’s just 3.3 to 52 feet for the metric-challenged. Although these aren’t specifically commercial industry statistics, I don’t know that they’d be much different. And that’s not good odds. The best part is reading the excuses listed under “Why not wear a life jacket?”, like “don’t need a life jacket if you can swim well.” Sure…..
Go to Cold Water Boot Camp for more information, downloadable videos, and DVD’s. This site is definitely worth a thorough viewing.
I owe a debt of gratitude to the excellent Casco Bay Boaters Blog for turning me on to the Cold Water Boot Camp. As a periodic visitor of (and fan of all-things) coastal Maine, I’m a regular reader. They cast a very wide net and never fail to interest: a rustic diamond in an internet world of mediocrity.