ELLSWORTH, Maine — In the wake of multiple kayaker deaths this summer — three of them in Hancock County alone — a state lawmaker from that county is proposing a new law that would require paddlers to wear life jackets while out on the water.
Current state law, which applies to all boaters, requires that each vessel have enough personal floatation devices, or PFDs, on board for each person on that boat. However, state law does not require people on boats to be wearing PFDs unless they are 10 years old or younger. Federal law requires children 12 and under to wear PFDs when on a vessel in marine waters.
State Rep. Richard Malaby of the town of Hancock is submitting a bill that would require canoeists and kayakers of all ages, but not other boaters, to wear PFDs. People in rowboats, who typically are traveling short distances in harbors between shore and larger vessels, would be exempt.
Malaby said he submitted the bill last week as emergency legislation so that it could take effect by the time next summer’s tourism season starts. His goal, he said, is to help educate inexperienced boaters about the dangers of paddling out in Maine’s waters and the importance of wearing life jackets.
“[Some kayakers who have died] weren’t wearing them, but they didn’t understand the impact of hypothermia and 62-degree water,” Malaby said Monday. “It is the cold that gets them, I think.”
Malaby said life jackets won’t prevent hypothermia, but they can help keep people afloat after they become unconscious or their limbs go numb from fatigue and cold.
“They may not be conscious, but at least they might not drown,” he said.
Malaby acknowledged some people might argue that people should have a right to not wear PFDs if they don’t want to. But the bigger issue, Malaby said, is that many vacationers in Maine don’t know enough about the hazards of paddling to realize they should consider wearing life jackets.
“I do think there’s a need,” Malaby said. “I think it’s an educational issue.”
Wearing a life jacket is not a guarantee of survival if a canoe or kayak capsizes, but it can help mitigate the short-term effects of hypothermia or unrelated medical conditions that someone in the water might experience. Bodies of fresh water in Maine often remain relatively cold for months after ice melts at the end of winter, while ocean temperatures can remain below 60 degrees even in the middle of summer.
According to several scientific and water safety websites, people in water less than 60 degrees often become exhausted or unconscious from hypothermia after roughly an hour.
Lamoine resident Diane Sanderson is a constituent of Malaby’s who had a personal experience with a kayaker death earlier this summer. She was sailing with her family on Eastern Bay between Lamoine and Mount Desert Island on July 10 when Stratham, N.H., resident Steven Brooks died while kayaking nearby.
Sanderson, who encouraged Malaby to submit the bill, said a woman paddling with Brooks in another kayak screamed for help after Brooks capsized. She said she and her family sailed over to the couple to help, but that Brooks was unresponsive when they reached the kayakers and then pulled them into the sailboat.
Brooks was not wearing a PFD during the incident, but he may have suffered a medical condition that contributed to his kayak rolling over, officials said at the time.
Sanderson said Monday that, even if Brooks was having a medical condition, a life jacket may have helped. PFDs can help keep a person afloat after they start to suffer from hypothermia and lose their strength, she said.
“He was facedown in the water when we got there,” Sanderson said. “At least we might have gotten to him before he was mostly dead.”
The Lamoine woman said that if adopted, Malaby’s bill would help raise awareness among novice kayakers and canoeists about the dangers posed by going out on the water.
“We advertise on our license plates and everywhere that Maine is Vacationland,” Sanderson said. “I think there’s more education that needs to be done.”
In addition to Brooks’ death, Maine Marine Patrol has dealt with at least one other fatal kayaking accident this summer along Maine’s coast. In June, Eric Hogan of Webster, Mass., died during his honeymoon after he donned a PFD and shorts and then paddled out into windy conditions in Frenchman Bay.
Lt. Jonathan Cornish of Maine Marine Patrol said Wednesday afternoon that the state agency had been called to three fatal boating accidents in Maine in 2011. Besides the incidents involving Brooks and Hogan, there was one on southern Maine this spring, he said, but he did not have access on Wednesday to the details of the third accident.
Without commenting on Malaby’s proposal, Cornish said it is a good idea to wear a PFD while boating. He said Marine Patrol officers have to wear one at all times when they are on the water.
“It doesn’t matter how good a swimmer you are if you’re in cold water,” Cornish said. “It’s a real key to survival to have that on. We strongly encourage it.”
According to Lt. Nick Barrow of the U.S. Coast Guard, federal law requires that there be a PFD on board for each person that is on a boat. He said that children 12 years old or younger legally have to wear PFDs when they are on the water. In addition, if boaters are depending on PFDs that automatically inflate when they become submerged, boaters must be wearing those PFDs at all times when on a floating boat.
Barrow said that, aside from the issue of PFD usage, there is one thing that could make Coast Guard searches more effective. If kayakers marked their vessels with waterproof owner and contact information, the Coast Guard could determine more quickly whom it is they are looking for, he said.
“If we found [a marked kayak] adrift, we would have a lead to go on,” Barrow said.
Capt. Dan Scott of the Maine Warden Service said Tuesday that state wardens have dealt with five fatal boating accidents this summer that resulted in six deaths. Of those, three involved canoes or kayaks while the two others involved small boats, he said.
On June 3 a canoeist died while paddling on the Allagash River, according to Scott. The man who died was wearing a PFD when his canoe capsized near Churchill Lake in northern Piscataquis County. The man may have had a medical condition that contributed to his death before his adult son pulled him from the water, Scott said.
Later the same month, a man drowned while fishing from a canoe in York Pond in southern Maine. Scott said that man had a PFD with him at the time of the June 16 incident but was not wearing it.
On Aug. 9 on Beech Hill Pond in Hancock County, a tourist from Korea drowned after his kayak capsized approximately 300 feet from shore. He was not wearing a life jacket and tried to swim to shore before he disappeared under the water’s surface.
Two other fatal boating incidents this year that the Maine Warden Service dealt with this summer involved small boats other than canoes or kayaks.
A Linneus man drowned June 28 after the 12-foot, flat-bottomed aluminum boat he was operating sank in Deering Lake in the southern Aroostook County town of Weston. Nearly a month later, two men from Boston drowned in Lower Richardson Lake near the northern Oxford County town of Andover when they jumped into the water to swim off a 14-foot Lund fishing boat. In both these accidents, the drowning victims were not wearing PFDs and alcohol was considered a factor, according to wardens.
Scott said he has not seen the wording of Malaby’s bill and that it is too early in the process for the Maine Warden Service to comment on it. But he said, generally speaking, the warden service always encourages boaters to wear PFDs when they are out on the water.
Even for a person who considers himself or herself a good and healthy swimmer, he said, chilly temperatures and swift currents can prove deadly.
“We have unique water in Maine, because for much of the year it is very cold water,” Scott said.
Follow BDN Staff Reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at billtrotter.