Safety on the water

I plan to spend a week on Prince William Sound this summer, fishing and exploring in a 22-foot cabin cruiser with my wife. Sue hasn’t spent much time on boats, so she had misgivings. To allay those, we took a boating safety course, “About Boating Safely,” recently given by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.


In a typical year in Alaska, about 14 people die in recreational boating accidents. People go out to have fun, and some of them don’t live to tell about it.

In 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 758 boating fatalities in the U.S., according to the U.S. Coast Guard report, “2011 Recreational Boating Statistics.” Of those deaths, 533 resulted from drowning. Eight out of 10 of the people who drowned weren’t wearing a personal floatation device (PFD) — a life jacket, as they’re called. A lot of people right here on the Kenai Peninsula are alive today because they were wearing a PFD when they went in the water.

People aboard small skiffs, canoes and other relatively unstable boats tend to find themselves in the water more often than if they had been in a larger boat. Eighty percent of the boaters who drowned were using vessels less than 20 feet in length.

Having flipped a kayak in the Chena River in Fairbanks right after ice-out, I know how quickly cold water can numb your body and make you utterly helpless. At least I was wearing a life jacket when I went into that icy river.

Nationally, the top five primary contributing factors in boating accidents are operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed and machinery failure. Only 11 percent of the deaths occurred on boats where the operator had received boating safety instruction.

Mention boating safety on the Kenai Peninsula and the names George and Mae Leighton are bound to come up. The North Kenai residents have been on a boating safety mission since 1981, when they joined the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. They spent many of those years on the water, responding to distress calls from boaters out of Seward. The most common call was from people who were out of gas.

“Sometimes they would call it a ‘mechanical problem,” George said. “But when we towed them back to Seward, a lot of them asked to be dropped off at the fuel dock.”

As a general rule, it’s smart to have one-third of your fuel for the trip out, one-third for the trip back, and one-third for reserve, but not everyone is smart.

“A guy came to Seward during the salmon derby,” he said. “He put his wife and four or five kids aboard — no life jackets — and took off. He got around to Day Harbor, and ran out of gas. He called us, but we couldn’t locate him. We couldn’t home in on his radio signal, so I told him to turn his lights on. His lights didn’t work, he said. I asked if he had a flashlight. He said no. I asked if he had a cigarette lighter. He said yes. So I told him to flick his Bic, and that’s how we found him.”

I strongly recommend taking boating safety classes. The one my wife and I took alleviated some of her concerns and was a good refresher course for me. Most important, we’ll be more safety conscious on the water this summer.

For more information:

If you would like the assurance that your boat is properly equipped to summon help and save lives in an emergency, the Kenai Flotilla of the Coast Guard Auxiliary offers a free vessel safety check. For information, visit

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The Kenai Flotilla will hold a “GPS for Mariners” class April 23, in Soldotna. A class for women, “Suddenly in Command,” is tentatively scheduled for May 11. For information on these classes and others, call George or Mae Leighton at 776-8457.

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Les Palmer can be reached at


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