I knew a North Carolina highway patrol officer who once told me, “I’ve never unbuckled a dead man.” His point was that wearing a seat belt makes all the difference in highway safety. Then he asked, “Kind of like life jackets, right?” I didn’t hold back the bad news. “Oh no, sir. People drown wearing life jackets all the time, every year.” Boaters frequently don’t survive accidents because safety gear failed or wasn’t used correctly. A life jacket is not a seat belt.
If you want to decrease your chances of living through a boating accident, buy the best survival gear, stow it on your vessel and leave it there. With the exception of closed-cell-foam-type life preservers and ring buoys, modern survival gear is complicated equipment that requires your attention. Manufacturers of life jackets, immersion suits and life rafts have minimum recommended inspection and maintenance procedures. You need to read those, make an inspection schedule and stick to it. Most often, impending failures are easy to see, but you have to look to find them. For inflatables, that means opening and unfolding the bladders and getting your eyes on every square inch of the thing. For all the equipment failures I’ve witnessed, I’ve also seen some very old life jackets inflate after years on the shelf. How? Well, they spent years on a shelf. If kept in a climate-controlled space, things do not deteriorate, and there are no problems with moisture and corrosion. But “boating” and “24/7 climate control” aren’t things you’re likely to ever read again in the same sentence. Sun, moisture, heat and salt work very hard to slowly destroy gear. When not in use, stow life jackets in the oft-required “cool, dry place.” That sounds absurd, but you can create that environment with sealable plastic bins and desiccants. Rinse anything that gets exposed to salt water with fresh water. Then dry it and put it away. I can’t possibly overstate the importance of this. Nothing takes something from brand-new to useless like salt water.
Do you know which button on your EPIRB is for Test and which is for Activate? Think about that now as you read this. Which side of your life jacket has the inflation lanyard? You need to train like you fight.
Life jackets are not the seat belts of the sea. The gear you rely on is far more complex than a belt and a buckle. Things can and will go wrong. That’s why you should inspect, protect, check and practice with everything you own that’s intended for emergencies.
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue.