A life jacket is your best ‘security blanket’ when boating

security blanket

Mike Haynes sits on his boat on Lake Barkley near a boat ramp at Bumpus Mills Marina where he once had an experience where he fell off the boat without a life jacket and needed assistance getting out of the water. Courtesy Asset photo


“Did you know most car accidents occur within five miles of your home? That’s why I moved!” Comedian Jay Leno used this joke in one of his opening monologues several years ago. Since then, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of it. The trouble is accidents are no laughing matter and they usually happen when you least expect it.

Recently I drove to Lake Barkley by myself to put out some stake buckets for crappie. I got everything ready before launching. Two stake buckets (used as artificial fish habitat) were tied to both the front and back pedestal seats to keep them from falling over. Everything went as planned as I eased down a steep ramp and idled my boat over to the dock.

Several locals were returning to the boat ramp from a small bass tournament and one fisherman was already waiting to back a trailer into the single ramp where my truck was sitting. No one likes to wait so I killed the motor and drifted in, planning to tie off.

Suddenly the wind picked up causing my boat to drift a few yards farther out. I jumped to the front to use the trolling motor but found my stake buckets covered most of the front deck. As I leaned out to try to grab the trolling motor rope, I lost my balance and fell into the lake. In a second, I was over my head and still hadn’t touched bottom. When on the water, I tend to keep a life vest on at all times. This time I didn’t have one on because I figured “I didn’t need it” since I was so close to the dock.

To say I’m not a good swimmer is being generous. Lucky for me there was a young guy at the dock who gave me a hand and pulled me close enough I could grab the dock. Figuring it would be fairly easy to pull myself out of the water; I grabbed the side of the dock and pulled up. However, every time I tried to pull myself up, my legs would swing under the dock blocking me from pulling myself up.

One of the bass fishermen could see I was in trouble and brought his boat over so I could hold onto it. He eased me over to the ramp with his trolling motor until my feet made contact. Again, I learned a troubling lesson. There was no way I could keep my footing because even though the ramp was covered in miniature ridges, the bottom was slicker than if it had been greased.

In just a few feet of water, I wasn’t able to stand until the boater moved me off the ramp where I could make contact with the bottom. Only then could I keep my footing and walk out. I thanked everyone for helping me, changed my shirt, pulled my truck out, and, in wet clothes, put my stake buckets out.  

On the ride home I couldn’t help but think how things could have turned out differently. Had I drowned it would have been terrible for my family to get the news that I wouldn’t be coming home. 

The important takeaway I want to share with everyone is that this incident was entirely preventable. I realized the first mistake I made was not putting on a life jacket before stepping into the boat. This is especially true around docks where many accidents occur getting in and out of a boat. 

I did not get to pick where I would fall into the water. I could have experienced a hard blow to the head, injured an arm, or swallowed some water and choked. This would have made it difficult or impossible to get back into the boat.     

I made a mistake being in a hurry. I rushed and took chances. No one likes to make someone else wait, but safety should never be compromised. Remember this and be patient when someone is taking a little longer than you think they should.

Falling in may turn out to be a blessing as I learned  my legs would swing under the dock every time I tried to pull myself up. Now I understand this is probably what will happen if I ever fall out of the boat and try to pull myself back in. 

I did a little research on the internet and it surprised me to see how many people had experienced similar problems. Several had jumped out of their boats in the summer just to prove how easy it was to get back in, only to find it took several attempts to make it. Many of these were fairly young men and good swimmers.

My original plan was to climb aboard my motor and use the tilt and trim to take me forward until I could work myself back into the boat. That is until I read where a few people who tried it had been injured when their foot slipped and the prop seriously cut their leg. A ladder seems to be the best solution but not all ladders are the same. It needs to be easily accessible and strong enough to support your weight. Your upper body needs to be moving forward when entering the boat or you could wind up pushing the boat away from you. 

It’s important to develop a rescue plan for ourselves or others when on the water. This needs to be practiced with a friend in water shallow enough to stand and walk out if necessary. Summer months are usually the best time to determine what works and doesn’t work and to make necessary adjustments. 

Every boat should have a life jacket for each person on board. They should be snug enough when worn that they won’t come off in the water. Children’s life jackets should fit snug with a strap that passes between the legs. Ropes, boat cushions, and floatation devices should be quickly and easily accessible. A kill switch should be used anytime the motor is in gear and a whistle needs to be accessible and loud enough so it can be heard some distance away. Yell if necessary as seconds count.

Looking back I realize my security blanket may have been ripped away but it may be the wakeup call I needed. I would rather know I’ve taken every precaution to be safe than to feel safe, when in reality I’m not. 

I’m sure many people reading this will dismiss it and continue doing what they’ve always done. Hopefully, some will decide to make the effort to be prepared so they may one day save someone else’s life. You never know, the person you save may be yourself!

Reprinted with permission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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