Paddling Without A PFD: What Are You, Stupid?

A few years ago, while kayaking alone a mile or so offshore on Maine's Rangeley Lake, I savored the solitude of a still afternoon, the silence broken only by the occasional cry of a loon.

Puffy cirrus clouds drifted across the summit of Saddleback Mountain about 5 miles east, while only clear sky separated me from a view of Bald Mountain to the west.

The drone of a boat engine interrupted my reverie.

I could see an inverted V of water pushed by its bow; it was approaching.

Damn! The whole bleeping lake and this jerk had to head right for me.

Then I noticed an official-looking insignia on the hull, and the driver's uniform. In seconds he had pulled alongside and cut the engine.

"Afternoon," he said. "Where's your PFD?"

"Uhhh, I think it's somewhere here," I replied, pretending to dig around in the cockpit. "Hmmm. Guess I must have left it on shore."

"Name?" the officer asked, pulling out a pen and a pad of citations.

As I gave him my personal information — for some reason, I recall, he also requested my height and weight — he wrote up the ticket, tore it off and handed it to me.

"This is just a warning," he said. "Next time it's a $50 fine."

"Thank you," I said. "You're absolutely right. I should know better."

"Now, where you heading?" the officer asked.

"That cove," I said, pointing to a distant inlet.

"OK, I'll follow."

"Thanks, officer, but you don't really have to ..."

"It's not like I want to," he said. "I have to. If something happened to you and they found out I let you paddle off without a life jacket I'd be in big trouble."

"Right," I said, and began paddling.

The police boat kept about 10 yards behind me all the way to shore, and waited until I stepped out of the kayak before speeding off.

I was lucky — not just because I dodged a fine, but because I didn't wind up as a statistic.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the foolish risks of bicycling without a helmet, using a similar headline, and loyal reader Gregg Matis suggested I weigh in on an equally dumb thing to do: paddle (or, as far as I'm concerned, venture out in any boat) without a personal flotation device.

There's really no excuse not to wear one. The new models are lightweight, comfortable and relatively inexpensive (how can that even be a factor, considering what's at stake?).

I wear a short-waisted model ideally suited for kayaking, since it doesn't get hung up on my spray skirt. This type must be worn, not just stowed, since it won't keep you afloat unless it's strapped to your body.

On more than one occasion — once in white-water rapids, another time in rough seas on the south side of Fisher Island — I've flipped over, couldn't execute an Eskimo roll, and was happy to be wearing my PFD.

Some of my friends prefer even lighter inflatable vests but I don't trust their ability to fill automatically fill with air if a paddler is thrown from his boat and knocked unconscious.

Bad things can happen, particularly when you're in a small, human-powered boat surrounded by large, fast-moving motorized vessels.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 70 percent of all fatal boating accident victims drowned, and of those, 84 percent were not wearing a life jacket.

The Coast Guard reports the most common types of vessels involved in reported accidents were, in order, open motorboats, personal watercraft, cabin motorboats; and canoes and kayaks. Last year more than 400 paddlers in the United States died in various mishaps, but clearly, other mariners — particularly those going out in small, open boats — are equally at risk.

Don't add your name to the list.

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

R.I.P. Cecil the Lion: Let's Make the Trophy Hunter an Endangered Species

The international outrage sparked by an American trophy hunter’s killing of Cecil, Zimbabwe’s beloved lion, justifiably vilifies the despicable practice of slaughtering wildlife for sport – but it also exposes the human...

All Who Wander Are Not Lost: Searching For The Elusive South Bog Stream In Rangeley, Maine

"Head for that tree stump," I instructed authoritatively one afternoon earlier this week, as if I knew for sure where we should be heading. I have learned to exude confidence when giving directions on any expedition, even...

Scott Jurek's 'Reward' For Breaking Appalachian Trail Speed Record: Three Summonses

When internationally celebrated speedster Scott Jurek scrambled last Sunday to the 5,269-foot summit of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, he broke the record for the fastest assisted hike of the 2,189-mile...

No Swimming at Seaside: What’s Next? No Hiking at Bluff Point?

Most of the time I’m reasonably scrupulous about abiding by government regulations.

Training For Mystic Sharkfest: The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Swimmer

Among the many benefits of active recreation is hanging out with friends – which of course you can do at a bar, pizza parlor or coffee shop, but since most of my pals prefer to spend their leisure time on the trail or water, we...

Stung By Wasps AND Suffering From Lyme Disease: I Can't Catch A Break

You know that funny, itchy feeling when something is crawling around or worse, lodged where it doesn’t belong?

Which Is Worse: Getting Devoured By A Grizzly Bear Or A Great White Shark?

During years of roaming hither and yon on land and sea, I’ve been chased by a grizzly bear, nearly trampled by stampeding yaks, charged by a bull, attacked by swarms of hornets and almost struck by a copperhead – but what...

A Whitewater Dream Taking Shape in Willimantic

Asked to name the best whitewater kayaking and canoeing stretches in Connecticut, most paddlers would single out a gnarly, 2.6-mile section of Class IV rapids on the Housatonic River from Bulls Bridge Dam to Gaylordville, or Diana's Pool...

My War With Canada Geese

Years ago I looked forward to autumn, not so much for the kaleidoscopic foliage but because the evening serenade of migrating Canada geese that lulled me to sleep.

Take A Hike Or A Paddle June 6-7 During Connecticut Trails Weekend

In a culture that celebrates virtually every pastime and passion – from National Kazoo Day Jan. 28 to Public Sleeping Day Feb. 28 to Moldy Cheese Day Oct. 9 – we outdoor enthusiasts finally get our day in the sun on June 6,...

A Fourth Straight Victory At The Essex Boat Race in Massachusetts: Paddling In A Small Division Pays Off

As Ian Frenkel and I paddled exuberantly toward the finish line last Saturday at the Essex River Race in Essex, Mass., I thought about what it had taken to pull off our fourth consecutive tandem sea kayaking victory.

Hiking The Continental Divide Trail From Mexico To Canada: 'It Is Fun Even When It's Miserable'

Applying the ancient Chinese proverb, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," Mystic native Hilary Sueoka and her boyfriend, Dan Stedman, should have taken three steps April 22 when they set out on their...

Turtles And Osprey And Otters, Oh My – So Much To See By Kayak

The turtle has an ill-deserved reputation for lethargy.