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.

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