PFDs and the nanny state

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Broad-based mandatory life jacket wear rules — mandatory as in for all boaters, on all pleasure boats, regardless of size, across the board — are misguided. It’s like hunting squirrels with an elephant gun. Not only is it overkill, but I’m also not sure they will accomplish what well-meaning safety advocates hope they will.

I don’t mean to sound like a Pollyanna, but the sort of behavioral change needed to reduce boating fatalities is best accomplished through education. If you and your buddy and your 90-pound black Lab are hunkered down in an aluminum skiff in January shooting sea ducks and you’re not wearing a life jacket — well, you had better be able to walk on water if you wind up in the drink. That happens every year, too often with tragic consequences. Somewhere the educational process failed that crew. Or perhaps they chose to ignore good advice and common sense.

But that doesn’t mean you should penalize the majority of experienced boaters who can recognize when it’s appropriate to put on a PFD and when it’s fine to leave it in its locker. Slip and fall on a 40-foot trawler, and you’re more likely to be treated for banging your noggin on a step or a stanchion than be fished out of the water.

Boats aren’t cars, and life jackets aren’t seat belts. It’s apples and oranges. There’s far too much variation in size and type of vessel, how they’re used and the wide range of conditions for a one-size-fits-all solution. That’s why education is so critical. Sound judgment and good decision-making are key elements of seamanship.

One shouldn’t overlook, either, the strong sense of personal freedom that boating affords so many people. The feeling that you are the captain of your ship, small as she may be, and that you willingly accept the responsibilities that go with it. Traditionally it has been an activity that rewards self-reliance and resourcefulness.

I think we all hope boating can remain an antidote to the nanny state and not just the latest manifestation of it. We need to preserve a place in this shrinking world where capable people are still permitted to make the right call.

I am an avid small boater, and my kids know they have to wear their life jackets without exception when we are under way. Once we’re swinging on the hook and the engine is off, they’re free to take off them off, which they usually do with relish. But they’ve also been brought up with the mantra “one hand for the boat, and one hand for yourself.”

They have more than a rudimentary understanding of currents and the effects that wind and tide have on sea conditions. And against their youthful braggadocio and sense of immortality, I remind them — more often than they care to hear — about the insidious nature of cold water (in the summer, too) and how even they, invincible as they believe they are, will eventually tire of treading water without a flotation device of some kind. I pray some of it will stick.

Having written more articles than I can recall about folks who for one reason or another did not survive a boating accident, I understand well the dangers of winding up in the water with nothing but a wing and a prayer. When that happens the odds are not in your favor. That brings us back to seamanship, preparation and prevention. To education.

The No. 1 priority when you’re operating a boat is the safety of the crew. The best way to keep the regulators off our backs is for all of us to practice good judgment and prudence when we’re on the water. We don’t want well-meaning do-gooders writing tickets for not wearing a Mae West in the cockpit of a 30-foot express boat on a bluebird day.

As an industry we should recognize the good intentions behind some of the PFD proposals bobbing around out there, even as they miss the mark. We all want to save lives, but no one wants overregulation, especially when there are other alternatives. You can’t legislate common sense or situational awareness. You need to teach it.

There is a place on our waters where rules are warranted and a place where regulation is not. For life jackets specifically, a continued focus on education, on affordable and comfortable devices that encourage wear, and on better enforcement of PFD carriage requirements can be part of the solution. Is there room for improvement? Sure there is. But any tinkering has to be done with a scalpel, not a mallet.

A sailing dinghy is not a lobster yacht. A PWC is not a 28-foot center console. And zipping across the lake on a calm afternoon is not the same as being offshore alone at night. One size fits all is not the answer.

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Metstrade Day Three

Soundings Trade Only Editor in Chief Michael Verdon continues his conversations with marine industry executives from the U.S. and around the world.