Common Sense Fall Boating

I’m not an advocate of the government passing laws to make a legal mandate out of what should be common sense. There’s no law against hitting your thumb with a hammer, though common sense dictates it’s not a good idea. At least in our area, there’s no law that says a deer hunter has to wear a safety harness when in an elevated stand. Harnesses a good idea and most hunters comply just because of common sense.

In our area there’s no law requiring an adult boater to wear a life jacket other than when on a Personal Water Craft such as a jet ski or wave-runner. There has to be a wearable personal flotation devise for each person on board, but they don’t have to be “on” to be legal. Still, wearing a PFD is a good idea anytime you are on a boat. It’s common sense.

For many, the boating season doesn’t end on Labor Day or late September when the air and water temperatures start to drop. Sunny days, fall foliage, fish going on their autumn feeding binge or when ducks start migrating down from the north often tempts people to climb into boats long after the fair weather, summer boaters have ended their season.

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Common sense is even more important in the colder time of year. Don’t forget about the life jacket, especially if planning to use a canoe, kayak or other small boat for the post season adventure.

Many states are considering laws making this common sense boating safety idea a legal requirement. In Pennsylvania it’s a done deal. Beginning November 1 and lasting through April 30, all boaters are required to wear a life jacket while underway or at anchor, not just have one on board.

I’m not advocating that around here, but it doesn’t negate the fact life jackets are the most important piece of safety equipment on a boat – more so as water temperatures drop.

Nation wide, almost 80 percent of all boating fatalities happen to boaters not wearing a life jacket and a disproportionate number of the fatalities occur during the months of November through April. During these cold weather months, boaters are especially at risk due to low water temperature and the risk of sudden cold water immersion.

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When a person is unexpectedly plunged into cold water below 70ºF, the body’s first response is usually an involuntary gasp. Without a life jacket, a victim may inhale while under water and drown without ever even coming back to the surface. If an individual does make it back to the surface, his ability to swim is usually restricted because of a shortness of breath, hyperventilation or layers of cold weather clothing.

The colder the water, the more serious the problem. At water temperatures in the 60s, a person has minutes to maybe an hour to get out or be rescued. As water temperatures continue to drop, hypothermia and other issues manifest themselves in less and less time.

Here are some cold water boating tips:

  • Always wear a life jacket, whether legally mandated or just because you should.
  • Read the life jacket’s approval label to be sure it’s appropriate for your boating activity.
  • When possible, don’t boat alone.
  • Leave a float plan with family or friends and know the waters you plan to boat.
  • Bring a fully charged cell phone with you in case of emergency and store it in a ziplock or other waterproof container.
  • Wear clothing that still insulates when wet, such as fleece, polypropylene or other synthetics.
  • If possible, stay with the boat. Get back into or climb on top of the boat.
  • While in cold water, do not remove your clothing.
  • If you can’t get out of the water, get into the Heat Escape Lessening Posture (HELP). In this position, individuals bring their knees to their chest and hug them with their arms.
  • Once out of the water, remove wet clothes and warm up as soon as possible.
  • Most of all, use common sense.
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Mike Schoonveld
Mike Schoonveld grew up hunting and fishing in rural Northwest Indiana. In 1986 he piggy-backed a career as an outdoor writer onto his already long tenure as a wildlife biologist with the Indiana DNR. Now retired from his DNR position, Schoonveld is a U.S. Coast Guard licensed boat captain, operates Brother Nature Charters on Lake Michigan and spends much of his time trailering his boat to fishing hotspots around Indiana and the Midwest. Mike can be reached through his website or visit Mike's Outdoor World Blog at


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