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There have now been five deaths on Maine waters since Sunday. The stories are heartbreaking.
Two young men died Tuesday on Messalonskee Lake after they were unable to make it back to the boat they had jumped off to swim, which had been blown away from them by the wind. Another man fell into the Saco River and died Sunday. Maine Marine Patrol recovered the body of a fisherman off the coast of Waldoboro Tuesday morning. A 13-year-old girl died Tuesday evening in the hospital after initially being rescued while drowning on the Androscoggin River.
In response to these tragic incidents, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Marine Patrol are urging people to wear life jackets and to know the limits of their swimming abilities. We sure hope people are listening.
“With the warm weather, as expected, the Warden Service has been a lot busier with boating [incidents] and in this case drownings. So we continue to encourage people to wear their life jackets,” Maine DIF&W spokesperson Mark Latti said. “Wear your life jacket and swim in an area that is consistent with your ability.”
We don’t know for certain that life jackets would have prevented these situations, and not all of these instances involved watercraft. But we do know that five people are dead. And based on reports, none of these people who died were wearing life jackets. It appears that some of them may not have known how to swim.
We also know that nearly 90 percent of boating fatalities in the U.S. involve people who were not wearing life jackets, based on statistics from the U.S. Coast Guard. According to Maine DIF&W, approximately half of boating deaths here in Maine involve watercraft without motors, such as kayaks or canoes, with paddlers who weren’t wearing life jackets.
“We just always encourage a safety first approach for people who spend their working life on the water and for people who recreate on the water,” said Maine Marine Patrol spokesperson Jeff Nichols. “A life jacket is really a critically important piece of gear.”
It’s also important to remember that, even on a warm and sunny day, water temperatures still might not be safe. This is especially true on the coast. People should keep an eye out for “beach hazard” or “special weather” statements providing warnings about water temperatures below 60 degrees. Officials warn that prolonged exposure to cold water temperatures can lead to hypothermia and an increased risk of drowning, particularly if someone isn’t wearing a life jacket.
“Even when you lose the bulk of the ability to utilize your muscles, that life jacket keeps your head afloat and you can still breathe even if you’re unable to move as well,” Latti said.
Maine law requires children 10 and under to wear a life jacket while on boats or other watercraft. People over the age of 10 must have a life jacket with them but don’t need to be wearing one. People of all ages on a motorized personal watercraft must wear a life jacket. The Maine Warden Service, part of the DIF&W, strongly encourages people to always wear a life jacket when on the water.
It can’t be said enough: Wear your life jacket. Know your limits. Be conscious of the water temperature.
These aren’t new messages from state officials, and it isn’t new for us to echo this caution.
We appreciate the continued messages of caution from state officials. We’re also wondering if there’s anything else that can be done to incentivize people to wear their life jackets. Maybe some free rewards, like the state has been doing for COVID-19 vaccines, could be given out when the Warden Service or Marine Patrol encounter people wearing life jackets on the water?
Now, the chance for a free fishing license or state park pass might not be enough to convince someone to wear a life jacket. The on-the-water logistics of such a program could prove cumbersome. Plus, only a fraction of Mainers were claiming their free vaccine benefits through the incentive program as of late May, so perhaps this isn’t the model to follow.
According to Latti, there have been several different life jacket incentive programs over the years. So maybe it’s all been tried before. But we encourage officials to be creative in how they spread this important message of caution.
Alarmingly, on Wednesday afternoon, Maine DIF&W announced another suspected drowning. Wardens were continuing to search for a missing Oregon kayaker on Swan Lake.
Maine has over 3,000 miles of coastline, over 30,000 miles of river waterways and roughly 6,000 lakes and ponds. These waters have provided recreational and economic opportunities for generations. They should be settings of wonder, not tragedy. We urge everyone to listen to the officials stressing caution, and to take steps to enjoy and work in Maine waters safely.