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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


A properly equipped family canoe. EVERYONE is wearing a life jacket!

Hardly a year goes by when there isn’t a drowning on some lake or river, U.S.A. In nearly every case the victims were not wearing life jackets. Boats capsize and people die. Why? Because they don’t know what they don’t know! Those who have never capsized have no clue what will happen if they do. They shrug off concerns with excuses like “I can swim real good;” “There are no bad rapids;” “I don’t go far from shore”; “The water is only knee deep—I can walk on the bottom.”

These excuses can get you killed. Here are some examples:

I CAN SWIM REAL GOOD! Scenario: You’re canoeing on a lake. There’s a light breeze, but it’s not enough to cause concern, so you nix wearing your life jacket. Soon, the breeze becomes a wind which makes it hard to control the canoe. Let up on the paddle (pause to put on your life jacket) and the craft may broach to the wind and capsize. Unexpectedly, your partner momentarily stops paddling: the wind catches the bow of the canoe and spins it sideways. You try to compensate but it’s too late: CAPSIZE! Seconds later, you’re in the water fighting for air. The canoe becomes a sail and skitters away. You swim towards it, but it’s out-of-reach. You are less than 100 yards from shore, but you’re fully dressed and wearing hiking boots. You are in deep trouble!

Now, re-program this scenario while wearing a PFD. You float above the waves and can safely chase the canoe if you wish!

And another scenario: A canoe containing two adults and two small children capsize on a slow moving river. The kids are wearing life jackets, the parents are not. The current carries the youngsters downriver. What are the chances that the PFD-less adults will catch them and haul them safely to shore ? I bet zero! Change the scenario to a lake with a high wind and everyone will probably drown!

THERE ARE NO BAD RAPIDS SO WHY WORRY? All rivers have some “current. When you realize that a two mile per hour current can power a giant mill wheel, you begin to gain respect for moving water. If you capsize and the current carries you into a downed tree (called a “strainer”), or your water-filled canoe or kayak (which weighs a ton or more!) pins you against a rock or log, you are in serious trouble!

THE WATER IS ONLY KNEE-DEEP: Try to stand in a two mph current in knee-deep water and the river may bowl you over! If you catch a foot between rocks when you stand, the moving water may flatten and drown you. The rule is to NEVER STAND IN WATER THAT IS MORE THAN TWO FEET DEEP! The safe way to survive a capsize here is to lie on your back, feet pointing downstream, paddle held tightly in both hands and used to ward off rocks. This won’t work if you are not wearing a life-jacket!

I DON’T GO FAR FROM SHORE: Fifty yards is a long ways to swim if you capsize in a strong wind, the water is very cold, or you’re fully clothed. Cold water is especially dangerous because the initial shock of the plunge can cause hyperventilation--you inhale water and drown!

LESSONS FROM THE PAST: One windy day, my friend, Al Todnem and I took my small sailboat out on a large reservoir near my home. Allen had never sailed so I gave him some lessons and let him take the helm. He did fine until he attempted to turn. Then he jibed the boat and capsized. Al hung on to the over-turned craft; I was thrown out to sea. Fortunately I was wearing my PFD and the water was warm. I drifted with the waves for 30 minutes before reaching shore. I would have drowned without my PFD.

EARLY APRIL, 2017 TRIP ON THE BUFFALO RIVER, ARKANSAS: Shortly after we put-in on the Buffalo River, we passed a dozen young women of college age. Only one was wearing a PFD. It may have been the old teacher in me, but I couldn't keep quiet. I hailed the girls and launched into a polite rant, outlining the dangers of not wearing a PFD on this fast, cold river. I concluded with: "Don't hate me girls, but you don't know what you don’t know. But if you capsize you'll find out fast--that is, if you survive the experience!"

Big surprise! The girls smiled and put on their life-vests. One girl even thanked me for the advice. I think they were peer-pressured into not wearing PFD's and just needed a cranky old guy to point the way. Later that day, one of the girls capsized and pinned her kayak. Fortunately, she got out okay. I bet she was very glad she had listened to this old man.

SURVIVING THE DANGERS: The most useless advice given to paddlers is “Be careful”. But “careful” is just a word if you lack the paddle skills to avoid obstacles. River runners must know obstacle-avoidance procedures like eddy turns, peel-outs, side-slips and ferries. And wearing a PFD is essential if you mess up and upset.

Accomplished paddlers wear their life jackets all the time,even on flat water in the heat of summer. If you wonder why, it’s because they know what you don’t know!

* Check out my new high-adventure/wilderness skills teen book, JUSTIN CODY'S RACE TO SURVIVAL, no available on my web-site.


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