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Better Safe Than Sunk

Advances in life jacket technology enhance safety without sacrificing comfort.

By Randy Brudnicki

“Look Out!”

I don’t know if I shouted or just thought it, but I do recall the “thunk” and high-pitched whine as the 220 hp Mercury outboard hit the rock pile. The blow to the lower unit skeg knocked the prop out of the water. The engine RPMs revved up so high, I feared the power head would blow. I don’t remember the engine shutting off, because I was staring at the shore.

No matter how hard I turned the steering wheel, the boat kept heading toward the shore — and still on nearly full plane. The “shore” where we were headed was a rock wall transitioning to mostly chunk rocks scattered on some sand. Right in front of us, however, was a pickup-sized boulder about 10 yards up the bank. “This is going to hurt,” I thought.

It was late winter and although the water temperature was in the upper 40s and the air wasn’t much warmer, it was one of those gotta-get-out-of-the-house kinds of days. The noon sun was bright and inviting, and the lake surface was mirror smooth. As I came down the tributary channel at 70-plus mph, I could barely tell where the bank and water met. The nearby shore was perfectly reflected on the water’s surface.

The channel was nearly 100 yards across and I was about 40 yards from the right bank. “Plenty of room,” I thought. Suddenly, dead ahead a few yards, I saw a 6-inch branch sticking up. We were too close to avoid hitting it. As we got closer, I could see rocks around a bush. The rocks were about a foot or so below the surface. I knew if I pulled back on the throttle, the boat would come off plane and crash on the rocks — hard. So I hit the up-trim button and pushed the throttle all the way down, hoping to skip over the rocks. I could also see that there were fewer rocks on the starboard or bank, side than on the port, or channel, side. Instinctively, I turned the steering wheel slightly.

The boat cleared the rocks, but when the motor’s skeg hit the top of the rocks, the lower unit kicked up and out of the water. In the late 1980s, almost all brands of engines had little levers designed to lock the motor up for trailering. In this instance, the force of the blow not only kicked the motor’s lower unit out of the water, but the spring-loaded lever also kicked up and locked the motor in the trailering position. Without the lower unit in the water, we were in a rudderless boat, on plane, heading straight to certain injury.

Miraculously, we hit the only 10-yard stretch of sand on that bank, but that huge boulder was in our path. At the speed we were going, when the front of the 20-foot bass boat hit the beach, it bounced up high enough to catapult the boat on top of the boulder rather than slamming into it. The boat slid up the boulder and came to rest at a 60-degree angle. I remember staring up at the front deck and seeing it silhouetted against the sky.

Here we were, 50 miles by water from the marina where we had launched, possibly stranded, with no food or blankets for the cold temperatures that were sure to settle in that night. Worse, the bow of the 2,500-pound boat-and-motor rig was on top of a boulder. The boat’s transom was at least 10 yards from the water’s edge. How were we going to survive? That time of year, it could be days or weeks before someone ventured to where we were.

My fishing partner and I slid the boat off the rock and with some effort, turned it towards the water’s edge. We took out the oar and dug a wide channel in the sand to get the water to the boat. We rocked the boat and dug sand until there was enough water for the boat to float. In about 45 minutes, the boat was back on the water. Damage was minimal: a dinged prop, bent prop shaft and scratches on the keel where the boat slid up the boulder.

On the way back to the marina, I could barely get the boat on plane because the prop shaft vibrated terribly, but it was good enough to get us in. (Of course, being diehard fishermen we stopped and fished good looking spots for several more hours all the way back to the marina.)

And I learned a valuable lesson. When it comes to boating, you never know what could happen. For years, I always wore a personal flotation device, or PFD, when I started the main engine, but I usually took it off when I stopped to fish. Since then, I have witnessed many other mishaps when people were fishing that made me realize that wearing a PFD is always a good idea, even when the boat is stopped. People do fall overboard when fishing! I saw someone fall off the boat when retrieving a lure from a tree branch. The water depth was over his head and we had a very difficult time getting him back in the boat. I know I too have come close to falling out when trying to retrieve a snagged lure. It doesn’t take much to slip and fall in.

What made my earlier mishap so chilling was the late winter water and air temperatures. Neither my boating partner nor I was wearing a life jacket when the accident happened. Because it was so cold, I was wearing a hooded winter coat and ski bibs; but wearing the PFD over the coat made it feel like I couldn’t breathe, so I stowed the PFD in the storage box. If the boat had not beached where it did, we could have been thrown into the frigid water. In 40- to 50-degree water, serious complications could begin within five minutes of immersion.

Nationally, although more boating accidents occur in summer, the percentage of accidents resulting in fatalities is higher in winter. This is not so much the case in Texas because the water is warmer for longer. But as many avid fishermen know, some of the best fishing occurs in cooler weather when there is a greater likelihood of hypothermia. No matter the time of year, though, one of the biggest rationalizations for not wearing PFDs is discomfort: it’s both too bulky and constricting or too hot to wear a PFD. But those excuses are not valid anymore.

It is uncomfortable to wear a bulky coat and put a vest-type PFD over it, I agree; but now there are warm, rain-resistant flotation coats and suits that are Coast Guard-approved PFDs. Not only do flotation coats and suits provide hypothermia protection if you are in the water, but they will keep you afloat — unlike traditional winter wear that may actually pull you down as they soak up water.

I tested two different kinds of “float coats,” both with pleasing results. One is a longer coat that reaches to mid-thigh and the other is a bomber-style jacket. Both kept me warm in adverse winter conditions and didn’t feel constricting like wearing a vest-type PFD over a winter parka. The longer coat is great for less active boating activity, but I prefer the bomber jacket for fishing. Recently, I fished most of a day, very comfortably, in a cold, steady downpour wearing the hooded, bomber-style-jacket PFD and the rain never soaked through. Best of all, the jacket PFD kept me feeling safe. Although the boat deck and carpet were very wet, I knew that if I did slip and go overboard, I was wearing my PFD. (Some flotation suits are also available in Mossy Oak’s Shadow Grass camouflage patterns for hunters.)

On the other hand, in summer it’s way too hot to wear a bulky PFD, so inflatable vest and waist belt PFDs are becoming more popular: some are manual and others are automatic/manual inflation combinations. Each has advantages and disadvantages. The manual PFD costs less, but if you are thrown out of the boat and incapacitated, it may be difficult to manually pull the activation cord.

The auto inflating PFD is better for those situations, but sometimes the auto mechanism may inflate the PFD when you don’t want it to, such as when there is heavy dew or rain or when a big wave inadvertently splashes on you. If you have an auto inflating PFD, store it in a sealable plastic bag when you are not wearing it so it won’t accidentally inflate. And always carry an extra rearming kit. (A new generation of inflatable PFDs from Mustang Survival will soon be available. The new mechanism is designed so that it won’t deploy until the pressure valve is submerged 4 inches .)

The waist belt inflatable PFD is light and easy to wear — perfect for the hottest summer days. You barely notice that you have it on. But, if you do end up in the water, once the belt inflates, you have to manually lift the inflated collar over your head to keep more of your head out of the water. Some people may have difficulty executing that maneuver in the water.

For the most part, inflatable PFDs offer much more buoyancy or “lift” than conventional PFDs, which helps keep your mouth above water easier. The higher your head is above water, the better your chances of survival — especially in choppy or cold water, because you have less chance of ingesting water and there is less heat lost.

Today, there is no good excuse for not wearing a PFD under any circumstance. The advances in PFDs have made them comfortable to wear in all conditions. When you have the right PFD for the situation, you are more likely to wear it.

What happens in cold weather if you fall in?

First 5 minutes

The shock of sudden immersion in cold water causes a big gasp for air. You can’t hold your breath, and cardiac stress increases. Fatalities may be caused by drowning or even by heart attack before hypothermia sets in.

First 15 minutes

After the first five minutes, it becomes harder to float or swim, and you have difficulty grasping or climbing onto things. This is when you could inhale water.

First 30 minutes

When core body temperature (98.6ºF) drops, muscle tone is affected. Most people experience tension in their back and neck when they become chilled. The same happens in cold water. At a core temperature of 95ºF hypothermia is increasing. At 93ºF, amnesia is common. Another drop to about 91ºF brings apathy and a lack of feeling. At 89.96ºF, you lose the ability to shiver; once you stop shivering (shivering is your only way to generate body heat), your body’s core temperature falls rapidly. Death occurs at 77ºF. However, you are likely to drown before getting to this point.

What to do when you’re in cold water:

  • Don’t swim unless you can reach a nearby boat, person or object. Even good swimmers drown while swimming in cold water. Swimming lowers your body temperature.
  • If a nearby object is large, pull yourself up onto it. The more of your body that is out of the water, the warmer you’ll be. Keep your head out of the water to save heat, which increases survival time.
  • Assume the Heat Escape Lessening Position (HELP), which is similar to the fetal position, by crossing your arms in front of you and bringing your knees in close to your body. Think positive.
  • Always wear your PFD. Even if you succumb to hypothermia, your PFD will keep you afloat.

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