Water Safety Is No Accident
CHEMISTS marvel at it. Life on earth depends on it. Our bodies are principally made up of it. What is it? Water, of course. But besides its beneficial properties, water is also alluring. It satisfies our senses and brings us pleasure. Millions worldwide regularly flock to it for fun and entertainment. However, as enjoyable as it is, it can also be dangerous.
In the United States, waterways are second only to highways for accidents. But being aware of the dangers and having a proper respect for water can limit the risks and keep it fun. What are some of the dangers, and how can we deal with them?
Boating Stress Factors
One of the most popular forms of enjoying the water is boating. During 1986, estimates reveal that nearly $14.5 billion were spent on the sport in the United States alone. However, grimmer statistics also disclose over 25,000 boat-related injuries. In addition, over a thousand people died. What can be done to keep boating safe?
While there are many causes for boating accidents, recent research conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard indicates that certain stress factors may be partly to blame. Their studies show that three to four hours of exposure to the elements of boating, such as noise, wind, vibration, sun, and glare, can cause a type of ‘boater’s hypnosis’ or fatigue. That’s why a day on the water can be exhausting even if little is done physically. Particularly noteworthy, however, is that a person’s reflexes can be slowed almost to the point that his reactions are like those of a person legally drunk, even though he may not be drinking. And if alcoholic beverages are consumed, the effect of such stress factors is intensified. Thus, it emphasizes the need to remain alert and to rest when necessary. And while the drinking of alcoholic beverages should always be in moderation, extra caution is needed while boating.
All too often, people’s leisurely attitude when on the water carries over to their operation of the vessel. Such a lackadaisical attitude helps to explain why collisions are the most frequently reported type of accident. Most collisions are attributed to carelessness and inattention. The following is a typical case. The pilot was accelerating out of a no-wake zone when his boat ran over another vessel, fatally injuring two of its occupants. The reason? The driver at fault had another person sitting on his lap, partly obstructing his view, and he was paying no attention to his surroundings.
Remember, just like car driving, being at the controls of a boat brings responsibility.
Falls Overboard and Capsizings
The two greatest dangers facing the boater are falling overboard and capsizing. Combined, they account for nearly 65 percent of the boating fatalities in the United States. Generally, the majority of these accidents involve small boats (under 16 feet [5 m]). But knowing why they occur can help you to prevent having it happen to you.
Most capsizings are due to overloading the boat with passengers or equipment. But even if a boat is not overloaded, a danger exists if the load is not evenly distributed. Even large ships have capsized because of shifting cargo or because passengers suddenly ran to one side. In small crafts, such as canoes, it is important to keep your center of gravity low. If you must move, it is best to keep in a low, crouching position and hold the sides rather than stand up.
In the event you do fall overboard or the boat capsizes, what should you do? (1) Make a conscious effort not to panic. (2) If you are not wearing a life jacket, try to grab one. (3) Since most boats have enough flotation built into them to keep them from sinking, it is best to remain with the boat; you’ll be easier to spot by rescuers. (4) If the water is cold, get as much of your body as possible out of the water and remain still so as to prevent hypothermia.
The body cools 25 times quicker in water than in air, and heat loss is about one-third greater if you tread water or swim than if you remain still. Many drownings occur when individuals try to swim to shore, as the shore is often farther away than it looks. And the colder the water, the quicker you tire.
If you find yourself in the water without a life jacket and no boat or other object to hold on to, clothing can be used for flotation. The U.S. Coast Guard publication Accidents advises: “While your shirt is on, button it at the collar and hold it tight at the neck. Bend your head forward, pull the front of the shirt up to your face, and blow air between the second and third buttons. Hold the collar tightly to trap the air. The air will stay inside the shirt and form a bubble at your back.” At least you have a temporary life jacket that can help you to float and not waste energy.
Interestingly, the Coast Guard says that fatalities would be cut by 75 percent if people would only wear a life jacket. However, most people view them as too confining, uncomfortable, or unglamorous to wear. Others refrain, thinking themselves to be good swimmers. (See box, “Good Swimmers Drown Too.”) Since most laws only require life jackets to be on board and not worn, it is a matter of preference. However, there is no doubt that you are safer wearing one.
As enjoyable as the water’s surface can be, many are intrigued by the fascinating world that lies beneath it. Snorkeling is a relatively inexpensive and popular way of peering into this beautiful and mysterious region. But again, caution should be exercised.
Exhaustion is perhaps the most frequent problem a snorkeler encounters either from venturing too far or from struggling against a current. A little forethought and planning can serve to avoid this situation. An even greater danger, though not as frequent, comes from diving too deep and running out of oxygen before reaching the surface again. Loss of consciousness and drowning can result. A fast ascent that requires you to struggle depletes the oxygen carried in the blood more quickly than a slow ascent. Know your limits and never wait until you are nearly out of breath before beginning your ascent. Always allow a margin of safety.
Surfing with either a board or just the body is an exhilarating way of enjoying the power of the waves. A key to safety here is not to underestimate that power and to know what areas to avoid. An experienced surfer knows that the contour of the ocean’s floor affects the waves. For instance, where the slope of the beach is steep, the waves hit the bottom with considerable force and an unwary surfer could be severely injured. Such waves are often referred to as “dumpers.”
Rip currents and undertows pose another danger to the surfer. Being swept out to sea by one is a frightening experience. But realizing that the current loses its strength some yards from shore can keep one from panicking. Generally, one can make it safely back to shore by swimming diagonally, not head-on, against the current. However, it stresses the need of being a good swimmer. Going with someone familiar with the area or to a beach with a lifeguard who can inform you of any hazards can help to assure a safe, enjoyable time by all.
As with all forms of water activity, a proper attitude and respect for the water, your surroundings, and others can eliminate many dangerous situations.
Oftentimes the person responsible for a mishap will respond by saying: “It wasn’t on purpose—it was an accident. I didn’t think anything would happen.” Indeed, ‘not thinking’ is often the cause. Accidents are never intentional, yet with a little forethought and respect for others around us, they can often be avoided.
Taking unnecessary risks for the sake of cheap thrills shows a disregard for life. One boating fatality came as a result of two groups carelessly water-ski racing. The lead skier fell and was run over by the other boat. Numerous other injuries have occurred in collisions at night when no lights were used or from disregarding navigational markers and running aground.
Such accounts are sad, yet sobering. Fortunately, we can do much to lessen the chances of having such things befall us. How? By showing proper respect for life and property, by good planning, by being cognizant of possible dangers, and by obeying the rules. Then we can confidently enjoy this marvelous creation—water.—Contributed.
[Box on page 18]
Good Swimmers Drown Too
Authorities have often been baffled by cases where a good swimmer falls overboard without any apparent injury and just disappears. However, according to information made available through the American Red Cross, physiological reactions to cold water may provide some of the answers. Caloric labyrinthitis may occur as a result of cold water suddenly entering the ear canals. This can cause vertigo wherein the victim may swim downward rather than upward, eventually running out of air. Another possibility is the hyperventilation reflex. Sudden exposure to cold water may cause uncontrollable rapid breathing. If triggered when the head is submerged, the person can drown. Pain may be another contributing factor. Sudden exposure to cold water may be so painful that the victim enters shock or has a heart attack. The lesson? Treat water with respect. Treat cold water with extra respect.
[Pictures on page 16, 17]
Water-patrol boat rescuing canoeist
Photo by Tim Smalley, Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources
Life jackets save lives—so why not wear them?
[Picture Credit Line on page 15]
Photo by Tim Smalley, Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources