Viewpoint: Should Lifejackets be Mandatory on Sailboats?

According to Coast Guard statistics, the vast majority of drownings happen from boats less than 26 feet long, with solo boaters especially at risk. Isn’t it time for the United States to make lifejacket use mandatory aboard boats of this size or when boating solo?
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Lifejacket Law Should be Mandatory!

 The author sports his lifejacket with pride

The author sports his lifejacket with pride

Few issues in recreational boating are more emotionally charged than lifejacket legislation. Most sailors—and boaters in general—feel the government has no right to enact laws that interfere with their choice to wear or not wear a lifejacket. If a sailor chooses not to wear one and drowns, that’s sad, they say, but the only victim of that decision is that sailor.

With National Safe Boating Week beginning on May 17, it’s important to understand how myopic and callous that attitude is. The presumption that a person must drown to be a “victim” is naive. Clearly, those making this point have never witnessed the heartache and despair that results from such a senseless and preventable death.

With so much at stake, the question of why so few sailors choose to wear lifejackets (fewer than 10 percent of boaters overall wear them, according to U.S. Coast Guard-sponsored studies) needs to be reexamined. “They’re bulky and uncomfortable,” most say. “They’re hot, and they mess up my tan,” others protest. But with the advent of lightweight inflatable vests and belts, some as unobtrusive as a fanny pack, this is more of an excuse than an explanation. 

Some sailors, especially those with limited experience, don’t wear them because they don’t fully understand the risks. They don’t realize how quickly a 12-foot pram can swamp when the chop grows. They don’t understand how unstable a small cat can become when the wind kicks up. They’re not aware that a rogue wave can send them tumbling over the transom of their 22-footer or that the boom can knock them, unconscious, into the cold waters with just a wind shift.

Many solo sailors I’ve talked with justify their choice not to wear lifejackets by boasting about their swimming skills. Even though there’s no one aboard to throw them a line, they’re great swimmers, they profess, and could easily swim back to their boat or even to a distant shore if their life depended on it. Still others believe that if they’re careful and respect the water, the likelihood of being separated from their boat is almost non-existent, so why bother? 

Finally, all too many sailors have fragile egos. For many, lifejackets are for children and non-swimming adults, not strong swimmers and skilled sailors like themselves. To be seen wearing one on a beautiful summer afternoon is embarrassing. Donning one, except during extreme weather, is perceived as a sign of insecurity.

Unfortunately, history tells us, this irrational stigma won’t disappear on its own. Lifejacket use by adult boaters won’t increase significantly until there’s an excuse to wear one: an excuse in the form of a law that mandates it and allows sailors to protect themselves without appearing insecure or inexperienced.

Seatbelt legislation and motorcycle helmet laws helped remove similar biases in the past. In fact, many bikers who wouldn’t consider wearing a helmet before helmet laws were enacted now wouldn’t ride without one.

While sailors comprise just 3 percent of the 3,970 boating deaths by drowning since 2005, according to the USCG, that number exceeds the percentage of registered boats in U.S. waters powered by sail. It’s not, as many sailors believe, just a powerboater problem. It’s every boater’s problem.

According to Coast Guard statistics, the vast majority of drownings happen from boats less than 26 feet long, with solo boaters especially at risk. Isn’t it time for the United States to make lifejacket use mandatory aboard boats of this size or when boating solo? It’s unfortunate, but educational programs and catchy slogans simply haven’t worked. According to Coast Guard estimates, lifejacket wear rates were lower in 2012 than in 2000.

Hundreds of lives could be saved every year if all boaters were making the right choice. But they’re not. It’s regrettable, but sometimes it takes a law. 

No, It Shouldn't

 Young kids, tippy boat: an appropriate place for a lifejacket

Young kids, tippy boat: an appropriate place for a lifejacket

For some time, contributing writer Alan Keene has been trying to talk us into printing his essay on lifejacket use—make them compulsory, he says! We finally gave in, and you can read Alan’s rationale for compulsion above.

Personally, I couldn’t disagree more—there are times when I’ll wear a lifejacket and times when I won’t, but I’d rather not have some bureaucrat making that decision for me, or some humorless goon in a uniform writing me up for not wearing a lifejacket on a 50-yard row to shore on a blazing hot summer afternoon—because you just know that’s the sort of thing that’s going to happen.

SAIL’s position is that we strongly encourage sailors to wear lifejackets, but leave it up to the individual to decide when and where to do so. Most states already have some form of law concerning lifejacket use by children, and for those that don’t there’s a Coast Guard rule in effect. Some northern states have cold-weather laws requiring lifejackets to be worn during winter; these mostly apply to small boats, kayaks, SUPs and the like, which are tippy by nature and on which you’d have to be pretty stupid not to wear a lifejacket.

I’d be interested to know what others think, though, so if you have an opinion on the matter of compulsory lifejacket use, drop us line at sailmail@sailmagazine.com

- Peter Nielsen, SAIL's Editor-in-Chief

What the Readers Think

The issue of enacting lifejacket laws has been a hot topic, and we've received great letters from readers. Here are a couple of our favorites.

As a 67-year-old life-long competitive sailor, I always wore a lifejacket on ocean racers in bigger wind. I have spent many more hours sailing in warm weather climates where a lifejacket would have turned a pleasant sail into a sweaty, uncomfortable "I’d-rather-be-doing-something-else" experience. It’s time we took responsibility for ourselves rather than rely on laws to dictate common sense. I’d rather take responsibility for myself and enjoy the freedom that comes with doing so than surrender my freedoms to a government agency. If you're smart enough to earn the money to buy and skipper a boat, you should be smart enough to know when you and your crew should be wearing lifejackets. Before setting out, you should have the required seamanship skills, including knowing how to rescue someone who goes overboard, as it's all part of taking responsibility for yourself and developing your own critical thinking, rather than expecting to be told what to do.—Peter Wormwood, via Email

I could not help but notice the bare feet of L. Alan Keene in the photo accompanying the story, and I was appalled by his callous disregard for boating safety. Failure to wear rubber-soled shoes that can grip a boat’s wet deck results in tens of thousands of foot injuries every year, from bruised in-steps to stubbed toes, and from gashed heels to chipped toenails. Failing to wear such shoes can also lead to slipping on deck, which causes injuries and can lead to falling overboard. Thousands of feet could be saved from injury every year, along with an indeterminate number of lives, if sailors wore appropriate footwear. But they’re not. It’s regrettable, but sometimes it takes a law.—M.J. Moye, via Email

I agree with Peter Nielsen's opinion—we don’t need the government micromanaging our lives. I wear my lifejacket when I deem it necessary or when it’s advisable. I don't need a bureaucrat with a badge in his 20's or 30's with little sailing experience writing me a citation because I decided, with over 60 years of sailing behind me, that it wasn't necessary to wear at the time. As for children, they can make the decision on their own once they're of age. Until then, they should wear a lifejacket on the water. As always, thanks for a great magazine.—Charles Smith, via Email

Kudos to Mr. Keene for voicing his opinion on this controversial topic. While in the U.S.C.G Auxiliary, I was party to rescuing more than one person who fell overboard and could not get back into his or her boat. Thankfully, most were wearing lifejackets. Needless to say, if we hadn’t shown up and they weren’t wearing lifejackets, we’d have read obits for these folks. When rescuing, the first thing we have people who are still in their boats do is sit down and don their lifejackets to keep them safe—no explanation needed. Two thumbs up for this article.—Linda Hoffecker, via Facebook

I don’t think it necessarily takes a law, but it does take more than SAIL’s position of “strongly encouraging sailors to wear lifejackets,” while the editor only wears his “when necessary.” If SAIL wants to strongly encourage lifejacket use it should have a policy that magazine photos—including the ads—should show people on boats wearing lifejackets when on deck. The ad agencies would scream at the end of swimsuit models on the bow of a boat sailing in tropical blue water with white beaches and palm trees in the background, but if we don’t do more to actively encourage lifejacket use, we will have a law. I don’t want a law either, but we do need good role models. What better role model than a respected sailing magazine and its editor?—Tom White, Grove, Oklahoma

SAIL's position is right on. I read Mr. Keene' s essay twice and still struggle see how more regulation helps develop common sense and personal responsibility. One can argue the benefits of wearing a lifejacket, helmet or seat belt all they want, but we cannot allow the government to mandate such laws for adults—period! Going by this logic, the government should make it a law to not to consume fatty foods.—Ken Carlini, Nashua, NH

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