Keeping kids entertained for the whole 50 minutes of class time is the main challenge park rangers face when teaching boating safety, said Bill Berkhahn, Kenai River District ranger at Morgan's Landing in Sterling.
"We go to class wearing our life jackets," Berkhahn said. "Sometimes, we bring along a spray bottle of water, to give kids the feeling of being wet. That always gets their attention."
Boating Safety Education is a class offered up and down the peninsula, from Kenai to Homer to Moose Pass to Seward, to grades kindergarten through sixth, 120 times a year.
"We have six instructors who have gone through classes in Marine Safety Instructor Training," Berkhahn said. "All our instructors are certified. We work with the Office of Boating Safety in Anchorage, to offer classes to elementary school children. We try to get them young, to teach them young."
The safety classes are divided into three groups -- one for children in kindergarten through second grade, the next for third- and fourth-graders, and the last class for fifth- and sixth-graders.
"For the youngest kids, we don't talk about things like hypothermia. We just emphasize always wearing your life jacket, staying warm, wearing a hat," Berkhahn said. "We try to customize the different classes, according to the kids' ages.
For the older children, classes get more complex. But the fundamentals remain the same.
"If you are a mile off Cook Inlet and you fall into the water, you will probably die from the cold before you can swim to shore," Berkhahn said. "We teach kids the Heat Escape Lessening Position, or HELP, that involves folding yourself up to keep as much heat as possible in your body, to lessen the chance of freezing. We also show kids how to huddle together, if they are in the water in a group. If you stay together, the water around you will stay warmer."
Regardless of the age group, though, Berkhahn said rangers always remind kids that these positions don't work unless you wear a life jacket.
Classes for older children also emphasize the "stay" rule, which includes such things as stay with the boat, stay away from alcohol, stay dry, stay warm and so on.
They discuss alcohol in the class, to remind kids that drinking and boating is as bad as drinking and driving.
Although the class is only 50 minutes long, the rangers leave simple tests behind that can be administered by the teachers at a later date. Sometimes, they return a month later, to see if the children remember what they have been taught.
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