Water safety key to enjoying Alaska summer

Posted: Friday, June 25, 2004

With more miles of coastline than the entire continental United States, more than a million lakes and thousands of fish-filled rivers and streams, Alaska is a state made for boating. Too often, however, these wild waterways can turn deadly for those who work and play on our most abundant natural resource.

This fact hit home last week, when two Kenai Peninsula residents drowned in separate boating accidents. And although the accidents occurred in different parts of the state one on the Kenai River, one in Bristol Bay they both had one vital fact in common: neither of the deceased were wearing life jackets.

It's a fact of life that accidents happen. A stray wave or unseen tree branch can create a life-threatening situation in a matter of seconds.

In Alaska, flotation devices are required for all passengers, but only children under 13 are required by law to wear them. Sadly, many people believe that simply having a couple life jackets on board is enough. But when someone finds themselves suddenly submerged in ice-cold water, it's often already too late.

Even good swimmers are not immune to the cold and dangerous currents of Alaska's waters. And if you're knocked unconscious during an accident, no amount of swimming ability can keep you from slipping below the surface.

Not widely reported along with the bad news from the water last week was a story about a boating mishap that ended without a loss of life.

On June 19, a boat on the Susitna River overturned when its operator struck a log. Both the boat's captain and a passenger were thrown into the water, a situation that could have turned deadly in a matter of minutes. However, when Alaska State Troopers arrived on the scene, they found the two individuals had made it to shore shaken and cold, yes, but alive.

Both people in the Susitna accident were wearing life preservers. Whether or not they would have drowned without them can't be known, but what is known is that they certainly had a much easier time staying afloat and making it to safety because of their protective gear.

In addition to wearing life preservers, another key component to staying safe on the water this summer is refraining from the use of alcohol while operating a boat. Although it might seem natural to have a couple beers while enjoying a day of fishing, alcohol can turn a pleasant trip into a nightmare.

Because alcohol impairs both judgment and motor skills, it can be double trouble for boaters. Operating a boat especially on often-crowded rivers like the Kenai requires a great deal of skill and vigilance. This means there's no place for alcohol while someone is behind the wheel, manning the oars or at the tiller.

Also, alcohol can speed up the effects of hypothermia, meaning that even if someone is wearing a life preserver, their chances of being rescued can decrease more quickly than someone who is sober.

We are lucky enough to live in a place that provides ample opportunities to have fun or make a living on our waterways. Just remember that with these opportunities comes responsibility.

This summer, those operating boats in Alaska should make it a priority to have everyone on board wear a life jacket. And passengers should always make sure there are enough preservers on board before heading onto the water.

Choosing to wear a life jacket and practicing smart boating safety are decisions that will save many lives in Alaska this summer.

One of them could be yours.

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