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A primer on life jackets: Especially in cold water, they can save your life

May 10, 2019 05:45PM ● By Editor
Life jackets are hung at the Friends of the Sauk River's Canoe Library in St. Cloud, Minn., in May 2011. Wearing a life jacket can significantly increase the chances of surviving a fall into cold water, a DNR official said.  PHOT: Jason Wachter | AP 2011

By Kristi Mahon of Minnesota Public Radio News - May 10, 2019

Anglers are heading to open water this weekend for the start of the fishing season, but just a few weeks ago, many of Minnesota's lakes and rivers were covered with ice. 

It takes a long time for lakes to warm up, and frigid waters can be extremely dangerous for boaters.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says wearing a life jacket can make a critical difference in the chances of survival for boaters and anglers who fall overboard into cold water.

When people head out in the boat this weekend, they might be tempted to toss a life jacket in the boat, but not actually put it on. What are the rules?

It depends on how old you are. 

Minnesota law requires that all children under 10 wear a life jacket while they're in a boat — or in a kayak or canoe, or on a paddleboard — that's moving. There are a couple of exceptions, such as when children are in an enclosed cabin, or when they're on a boat that is anchored for swimming and diving.

Adults are not required to wear a life jacket when they're on the water. But state law requires boats have at least one U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket on board for every person, and each of those life jackets must be readily accessible. 

And even though it's not required, it's still smart for adults to wear life jackets, too — especially in the springtime. According to data from the state DNR, more than 30 percent of boating fatalities in Minnesota happen in cold water when the victim wasn't wearing a life jacket.

Lisa Dugan, recreation safety outreach coordinator with the department, said people make excuses for not wearing life jackets, often because they say they know how to swim. But especially in frigid springtime water, swimming ability isn't enough to stay safe.

"Cold water will incapacitate even the best swimmers, and it makes it extremely difficult to put on a life jacket while you're in the water," Dugan said.

Why is cold water so dangerous?

A fall into cold of water can turn fatal in several different ways, and not just because of hypothermia. In fact, most cold water victims die long before they become hypothermic.

Here's what happens: Within the first couple of minutes of falling into cold water, a person goes into what's called a cold shock response. That triggers a reflex to gasp and inhale water. You might start hyperventilating and panicking. That makes it harder to stay above water in those first couple of minutes.

Within the first 30 minutes in cold water, a victim's arms and legs cool down very quickly, which makes it very difficult to keep their head above water — even if they're a good swimmer. 

Then, after about 30 minutes in the water, their body's core temperature starts to drop, and that's when they're likely to lose consciousness.

Wearing a life jacket can significantly increase the chances of surviving a fall into cold water, Dugan said. 

"You're more likely to die from drowning than hypothermia," Dugan said. "With the life jacket on, it gives you time to get out of that situation, to be rescued or self-rescue, and get back another day on the water."

That's why Dugan recommends wearing a life jacket any time you're on the water: If there's a life jacket somewhere on the boat, but you're not wearing it, it's really tough to reach for it and put it on if you're in an emergency situation.

What do statistics tell us about who's wearing life jackets and who's not?

The DNR says there's a troubling trend of men not wearing life jackets. According to their data, men between the ages of 20 and 60 are least likely among all boaters to wear a life jacket. They're also the most likely to drown while boating.

Also, it's anglers who are most often the victims of drowning in cold water, perhaps because they're often out on the lakes and rivers earlier in the spring than other recreational boaters.

Last month, a DNR conservation officer died after falling overboard on a lake in Pine County. DNR policy requires employees to wear a life jacket when they're in a boat, but the officer did not have one on when he fell over the side of the boat.

When buying a life jacket, what should you look for?

Spring is a good time of year to dig out old life jackets and make sure they still fit and are in good condition. If they need to be replaced, look for life jackets with a "U.S. Coast Guard approved" label.

If it's for a child, check the weight and chest size on the label. Make sure the jacket fits snugly. Don't buy one that's too big, hoping they'll grow into it.

A good way to check if it's the right size is to try it on, pull up on the shoulders and make sure the life jacket doesn't come up over the child's arms, Dugan said. 

It's a good idea for everyone, she said, to try on a new life jacket right in the store, and make sure you like the way it fits and looks. That's an especially big deal for teenagers, she said: If they like it, they're more likely to put it on — and keep it on.

Dugan said newer inflatable styles of life jackets are slim, trim and less bulky than old models.

"It really takes away those excuses," she said.

To read the original article and read related reporting follow this link to the MPR News website.

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