Maine law requires anyone on a boat or other watercraft to at least have a life jacket with them on board. All children age 10 and under must wear a life jacket on board at all times, and while adults are not required to do so, the Maine Warden Service recommends it.
That, and statistics about drowning, should be enough to convince us all to take the extra time, maybe look a little less cool and to put on a life jacket.
According to the Boaters’ Guide to Maine Boating Laws and Responsibilities, approximately 90 percent of drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket. We’re not advocating for a stronger life jacket law, but we are advocating for people to look at the numbers, exercise caution and take the wardens’ advice.
For the average boater, this should be a no-brainer. There are, of course, complicating factors for people who work on the water. Take lobstermen for example. As a story from Maine Public’s partner WBUR illustrated last year, life jackets can be viewed more as a hassle or an obstacle to an already tough job rather than a lifeline.
“[I] never even considered it,” Peter Fredrickson a captain from Hingham, Massachusetts, said about wearing a life jacket while fishing. “Because, you know, big, bulky life jackets — No. 1, you can’t work in them, and No. 2, it’s hot … and on a day like today, to wear anything else besides shorts and a T-shirt and your rain pants is gonna be miserable.”
Another Massachusetts lobsterman who was interviewed in the WBUR story, Steve Holler, said last year he was unlikely to start wearing a life jacket while fishing — even with the recent efforts to make them more conducive to working on a lobster boat.
“I don’t think of it that much,” Holler said. “There [are] more hazards on the boat — I could lose fingers, I could get some serious lacerations with the knives, hand injuries, leg injuries … Falling overboard is on my mind, but it’s not at the very top, sadly to say.”
According to a 16-year study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 204 fishermen died from unintentional falls overboard between 2000 and 2016. None of them were wearing a life jacket.
“The most frequent cause of death in the lobster fishing community is falls overboard,” said Julie Sorensen, director of the Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety (NEC), in the WBUR story.
Sorensen and NEC have partnered with others including lobster industry groups to create the Lifejackets for Lobstermen Project, which is currently traveling Maine in a van selling different life jacket models that have been designed, with feedback from lobstermen, in order to be more adaptable to working conditions on the boat. We’re not telling lobstermen to buy these jackets, but they should always be considering ways to make sure their livelihood doesn’t come at the expense of their safety.
The same goes for recreational boaters. It is tragically too easy for a short paddle to an offshore island or a moonlit cruise around a lake to turn deadly, simply because life jackets weren’t used. It doesn’t matter if the weather is perfect when you set out or that you are a strong swimmer. Conditions change; things can go unexpectedly wrong.
Maine is blessed with tremendous water resources, which we use for both recreation and commercial purposes. We should seize these many opportunities. But when we do, we should do the smart thing and put on a life jacket, even if it’s not required. They may be hot, they may look dorky, they may get in the way. But they can also save lives, and that seems like a worthwhile trade to us.