If there’s anything Navigation Officer for Greenwood Lake Police Department Richard VanDermark is eager to share with others, it’s that his own life was saved because he was wearing a life jacket.
On a warm August day, he was tubing with his grandchildren on Greenwood Lake and his son-in-law was at the controls of his pontoon boat. As he was pushing his granddaughter up onto the deck of the boat after tubing, he slipped, hit his face on the deck, and fell back into the water.
“The next thing I remember was my son-in-law doing CPR on me,” he said. “When I woke up things were foggy but I do remember I could not breathe very well, [I was] making loud wheezing sounds and looking at my terrified grandchildren.”
After his near death experience, he looks at life a lot different, he said. There is a fine line between life and death and all the little things count.
When speaking to individuals that refuse to wear life jackets, VanDermark said he shares his personal experiences about pulling bodies out of the water. Those people would not have drowned had they been wearing life jackets.
He said he always wears his life jacket on and off duty to promote a positive image to other people. He strongly supports the Wear It! campaign and would like to see New York law changed so that everyone must wear life jackets, not just those under 12 years old.
“If I was not wearing my life jacket I would not be here today to share my experience with others,” he said.
Another memorable experience VanDermark had was when he was on patrol and came across a paddle boat containing two young children that were not wearing life jackets. Because they said they did not have any, he gave them two life jackets from the patrol boat.
Later on, he said a thunder and lightning storm arose and his mind went back to the children. After responding to their location, he found their boat sinking and them in the water. He was able to pull the children into his boat, hook up the paddle boat, and return to shore safely.
“If I did not give the children [life jackets] they would have certainly drowned,” he said. “Everything turned out okay. That was a good day.”
We’ve chatted with a few people and asked what they believe the most important boating safety tips are. Here’s input from another person we spoke with:
Carolyn Stuberg, Founder and Executive Director of Alexandria School for Nannies
Stuberg said she has her skipper’s license and she owns three boats and a wave runner. Boating safety is taught at the school for nannies and the lake house.
- No children under 12 years old are allowed on the dock or in a boat without a life jacket
- Children’s life jackets must have collars with handles in case they fall into the lake. The vests must also have crotch straps and be approved by the United States Coast Guard
- Anyone using a wave runner must know how to swim
- No one without a skipper’s license is allowed to drive a wave runner or boat
- Those with skipper’s licenses must carries copies with them in a waterproof bag
- All persons being pulled behind the boat must have a spotter
- All spotters and riders must know the correct hand signals
- No barefoot wave riding
- No alcoholic beverages on the boat
Lastly, Stuberg said safety checks are mandatory before anyone takes out a boat or wave runner. All safety items including fire extinguishers and correct number of life jackets must be present.
Bonnie Russell, an independent legal publicist, still remembers her first day sailing years ago – the day she fell overboard into the San Francisco Bay without a life jacket.
Although she had her wisdom teeth removed the day before, she said she was invited by friends to go sailing on the first day of winter and accepted their offer. She spent the first little while sleeping, but later that afternoon she felt better and decided to pose for some pictures.
While posing, Russell said a sudden wave emerged and slapped the side of the boat, causing her to lose her balance. She quickly tried to grab the boom to hang on, but missed it by inches.
“Going over the stanchion backwards, as I looked at the water I remember thinking, ‘Oh boy – this is going to be cold,’” she said.
After she surfaced, she said she instinctively began swimming toward the boat. However, it was gaining quite a bit of distance from her and she quickly realized she would drown if she kept trying to go after it. Although someone was spotting her, they forgot to throw a life ring to her.
Russell said the wind began to pick up and she saw the sail on the boat coming down as they turned the motor on. All that was on her mind was a story her friend in the Coast Guard told her about snagging a shark in the bay while fishing.
“I focused on floating as high up in the water as possible, and not panicking as I wondered how far into the Bay sharks came,” she said.
Russell said a man that liked her jumped overboard and attempted to rescue her despite the disapproval from the rest of the boaters on board. Because he had been drinking, she refused his offer to save her and swim to Berkeley.
Her rescuer ended up being a friend who was actually on the boat, she said. Once they caught up to her, she tried to climb up the ladder and was pulled on board. The entire rescue effort took about eight minutes.
“Everyone commented how small I looked in the water,” she said. “I was too cold too unzip my parka, and wasn’t talking much as my teeth were chattering at a pretty good clip.”
Russell said the man that jumped in after her made it back onto the boat, but he was in shock and partly hypothermic. Later on the friends discovered a photo that was taken of the man jumping overboard and one of the other men on board shouting “NO!”
Although she said she still sails, Russell offers two basic rules she learned from that day. One, don’t swim after the boat. Two?
“Remember it’s the guy in the boat who will save you, not the guy who jumps in the water,” she said.
If there’s one thing former Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway Water Patrol Officer Adam Lucas has learned, it’s that you don’t need to be in the water to have a boating accident.
Running late one morning, he said he quickly hooked up a patrol boat to his truck and rushed to the lake to meet with another officer. While traveling across a rough bridge, he noticed an unusually loud sound. Naturally, he glanced into his rear view mirror.
“I saw my boat going left when my truck was still going straight,” he said. “The trailer had come off its hitch and was dragging on the safety chains behind the truck.”
Panicking, Lucas said he slammed on the breaks, which caused the trailer to slam into the back of his truck and damage the tailgate. Although no one was injured, his pride suffered quite a bit.
“The worst part of the whole experience was that my supervisor made me investigate my own accident and file an accident report that showed I was at fault for ‘failure to give full time and attention’”, he said.
Lucas said this experience taught him to always double checking a tow hitch to make sure it is properly secured. In addition, the tow chains must be fastened correctly. In his case they were, otherwise the person in the car behind his could have been seriously injured.
Another scary experience he said he had was when his coworker, dressed in full duty gear, fell overboard while trying to get a dog back on board. Because it was spring and the water was cold, the shock of falling in sucked up most of her strength.
“What made this scary was that the boat didn’t have a swim platform or any type of ladder to get her back in,” he said. “The shore was about a half mile away and she wasn’t wearing a life jacket.”
Using a rocking technique he learned during boating training, Lucas pushed his coworker into the water and pulled her up higher and higher as momentum built. Eventually, he was able to pull her over the stern and subsequently rescue the dog.
He said the most important safety tips are to steer all blind corners extra wide, wear a life jacket while on the water, and drink plenty of water while boating. As for the latter, cool breezes often mask heat exhaustion, which was their most common EMS call.
As one last piece of advice, Lucas said people should not think they won’t get caught or charged with a DWI while boating. Boating can be more dangerous than driving a car, especially if there is alcohol involved.
“During the summer, we made just as many boating DWI arrests as my fellow road officers made on the street,” he said.
We’ve chatted with a few people and asked what they believe the most important boating safety tips are. Here’s what one of them had to say:
Brian Kempf, Marine Services, State of New York
- Wear your life jacket
- Take a safe boating class
- Never boat and drink
- Always let others know where you’re going
- Bring a sound producing device
- Bring a phone or VHF radio
- Always dress for water temperatures
In addition, Kempf said National Safe Boating Week is essential for reinforcing the important considerations to be aware of before heading out into the water. Lack of life jackets or not wearing them when required are among the most noted violations, and they are essential to have on.
“Being prepared for unexpected water immersion greatly increases your chances of survival,” he said.
The most important point to take away is situational awareness, he said. That means paying attention to the waters, locales, weather, and remoteness.
National Safe Boating Week takes place this year from May 19 to May 25with the purpose of educating individuals about the importance of boater safety and life jacket use, according to the National Safe Boating Council, Inc., or NSBC.
The NSBC began in 1958 as the National Safe Boating Committee and their purpose was to plan for each year’s National Safe Boating Week, said Rachel Johnson, Communications Director at the NSBC. A few years later, an official resolution was passed that designated the full week before Memorial Day weekend National Safe Boating Week.
She said one of the main educational and outreach efforts of the NSBC is the “Wear It!” campaign.
“The campaign is designed to educate boaters about the importance of always wearing a life jacket while boating and offering them information on the different styles that are available so they can choose the right life jacket for their boating lifestyle,” she said.
According to the NSBC, drowning was the reported cause of death in almost 75 percent of all boating fatalities and 88 percent of those were reported as not wearing life jackets. To kick off National Safe Boating Week, the third-annual “Ready, Set, Wear It!” Life Jacket World Record Day will take place on Saturday, May 19.
“The goal of “Ready, Set, Wear It!” is not only to beat the 2011 record of 1,685 life jackets worn throughout the world, but to promote the comfortable and versatile options when it comes to life jackets and to educate the public about life jackets and safe boating in general,” Johnson said.
Prior to the start of National Safe Boating Week, individuals are encouraged to wear their life jackets to work on Friday, May 18, and take a photo of it, according to the NSBC. Participants are encouraged to share their photos with others and post them on the “Ready, Set, Wear It!” Facebook wall.
According to the NSBC, this initiative demonstrates how easy it is to wear a life jacket and helps spread the word about life jacket use.
According to statistics on boating fatalities from the United States Coast Guard, there has been a steady decrease in boating fatalities since about 1960. This supports the claim that boating has gotten safer since the first national observance of NSBW.
Our infographic below displays boating injuries and deaths from 2006 to 2010, and the data show the same pattern of steady decrease.
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