Life jackets. Who wants to wear them? They can feel constricting and hot. And they make you look fat. That's a serious mojo killer.
But I'm becoming curmudgeonly about life jackets (or pfd's, as they are also called).
Perhaps my resoluteness was steeled when I was paddling the Kissimmee chain of lakes and Kissimmee River with a small group in 2007. On the third day, we were paddling a shallow canal and stream that connected two lakes. The day was warm, the water calm, and so we took off our life jackets and placed them under bungees behind our cockpits. Florida law says you only have to wear a life jacket if you're under six years of age, so we were still legal.
When we drifted lazily into Lake Hatchineha, we rounded a point and the wind suddenly hit us broadside. We struggled to face our unexpected nemesis as waves lapped around our cockpits. It was a challenge to stay balanced, so turning to retrieve my life jacket was out of the question. How could I be so careless? This was a dangerous situation. As we struggled towards the opposite side of the lake, we were fortunate no one tipped over. I've had similar episodes with prematurely stashing my spray skirt. And so I began to develop a rule through trial and error-just leave the life jacket and spray skirt on, especially if there is a possibility of encountering open water or foul weather. As Coast Guard rescuers say, life jackets can make the difference between a rescue and a recovery.
Most outfitters and guides worth their salt require their guests to wear life jackets. Many paddling clubs and associations require participants to wear life jackets on their trips, partly to fulfill insurance requirements. But I often see paddlers on their own not wearing life jackets.
I recently joined a highly publicized group of paddle boarders who were promoting a conservation message. Only a friend and I, paddling kayaks, wore life jackets. And with one exception, none of the paddle boarders had life jackets strapped to their boards, defying state law. That's like removing seatbelts from your vehicle. I doubt that most had whistles, either, another requirement.
I've guided trips for beginners where people have tipped over. While sometimes frightening, none of the situations were life-threatening. That's because the people wore snug life jackets and once in the water, they were bobbing with heads above the surface, making it easier for me to assist. No one complained about wearing a life jacket.
Recently, I helped to rescue a more experienced paddler who tipped over in a swift and deep stretch of the Ochlockonee River. Since I was ahead of her, I quickly landed on shore, waded in, and pulled her towards me by the top of her life jacket. It nearly came off, prompting me to grab her slippery arms. After thanking me for saving her life (a bit of an exaggeration), she told me sheepishly that she had loosened her life jacket that morning and unbuckled the bottom strap to be more comfortable. If she had struck her head on the many snags nearby and the life jacket had come off, it could have been fatal.
The reality is that we can put all kinds of safety advice and information on websites and in brochures, strict laws can be passed, but that doesn't mean paddlers will follow them. It is up to responsible paddlers to keep reminding, nagging, lobbying, cajoling...to become a bit curmudgeonly. One can be a free spirit on the water, and still wear a life jacket.