May 27, 2018
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It’s time to require PFDs for salt-water kayakers


Two of Maine’s summer visitors have died in the last few weeks while kayaking near one of the state’s greatest tourist draws, Mount Desert Island. One man, who was on his honeymoon, was wearing a personal flotation device. The other was not.

These tragedies are all the more sad because the victims were not Mainers. Collectively, we feel as one might feel if our party guest slipped and fell off the deck, breaking their neck. Though the recent trend in state government is to let people make their own decisions about potentially dangerous activities — see the legalization of fireworks — Maine can and should use laws to encourage safer kayaking and canoeing.

It wouldn’t be a big leap. State law already requires watercraft under 16 feet in length, and any type of kayak or canoe, to carry a wearable personal flotation device, or PFD, for each person on board. Currently, those PFDs don’t have to be worn, but requiring their use in saltwater is a reasonable first step.

Watercraft 16 feet and longer must carry a PFD for each person on board plus at least one flotation device (a Type IV) that can be thrown in a rescue. Children 10 years old and younger always must wear a PFD while on board any watercraft. And in a few river locations in Maine — parts of the Saco, Penobscot and Kennebec — kayakers and canoeists must wear a PFD.

PFDs have evolved significantly from the bulky, uncomfortable kind prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s. Those made for kayakers are light, thin and cut high so as not to interfere with paddling.

Cottage and inn owners also should rethink providing kayaks for visitors to use. Too often, the kayaks provided at cottages in bay- and oceanfront locations are the open-cockpit type, which are unsuited for those waters.

With tourism being the state’s top industry and kayaking growing tremendously in popularity over the last ten years, Maine cannot afford to shrug off these kinds of deaths. For better or worse, kayaking is seen as a recreational sport that does not require training. Short of requiring people to take a course before heading out on the water, a law requiring that a PFD be worn is a moderate step.

Many people will ignore the law, but it will undoubtedly encourage PFD use. The marine patrol and U.S. Coast Guard already check boats for PFDs, so stopping to speak with kayakers will not generate any more costs.

As seen in one of the deaths, PFD use is not a cure-all. Among the other considerations for safe paddling, suggested by a commenter on the BDN website, are to check weather forecasts before leaving, leave a written float plan indicating where you are going and when you intend to return, stay along shorelines as much as possible and paddle with others when possible, bring dry clothes to change into and practice self-rescue.

Enjoy Maine’s amazing waters, but paddle smart.

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