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Water and boating safety 101

Posted on May. 3, 2019 ( comments)

Boating season kicks off this weekend with the Seattle Yacht Club’s Opening Day parade and festivities.

That means it’s a good time to refresh your boating and water safety knowledge — and consider getting a Washington state boater’s education card.

In Washington, drowning is the second-leading cause of fatal injury for children and teens ages 1 to 17 and number-one cause for ages 1 to 4. But it’s also preventable.

Here are some general water safety tips for anyone planning to paddle, boat, swim or play in the water this summer.

1. Obtain a boater safety education card.

Washington State law requires operators of power-driven vessels with 15 horsepower or greater — so, basically, all power boats and personal watercraft — to take a safety education course and obtain a Washington state boater education card.

Even if you don’t plan on operating a boat, a boater education card is still useful, says Erin Summa, Health Promotion Coordinator for the Mary Bridge Center for Childhood Safety. 

“If you can envision any scenario where you might drive a friend’s boat — maybe take the wheel so they get a turn waterskiing or wakeboarding, or even just operate a jet-ski — you need a boater education card,” Summa says. “Yes, it is the law, but it is also a smart thing to do. It could save your life, or someone else’s.”

Boaters age 12 and older can take the education course in a classroom, online or at home. You can learn more at the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office's boating safety and education website.

2. Always wear life jackets.

Life jackets may feel like a chore to wear, but they could save your life. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 85 to 90 percent of boaters who drowned were not wearing life jackets.

You may be thinking “I know how to swim. Why do I need a life jacket?”

But being able to swim won’t necessarily help in chilly Washington waters, which average 50–55 degrees year-round. Water this cold can dangerously lower body temperature, making your limbs numb and swimming difficult.

“You can be an excellent swimmer, but if you can’t move your muscles, you can sink like a stone,” Summa says.

Cold shock response, or the body’s automatic reflex when immersed in cold water, may trigger a deep inhalation of air. If you’re underwater when this happens, you may end up with water in your lungs, making the situation worse.

“You don’t drown because you can’t swim, you drown because you can’t breathe,” says Summa. 

Life jackets keep you afloat and help your core stay warm.

More water safety tips from Mary Bridge Center for Childhood Safety

Children should always wear a life jacket near open water, whether swimming or boating. Washington state law requires children 12 years old and younger to wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket at all times when underway in a vessel less than 19 feet in length.

Even in a "controlled" setting, such as at a swimming pool, or when there's no plan to get in the water, such as fishing off a dock, Summa advises parents to put life jackets on children.

Be sure to check the fit, too. Fasten all zippers and straps and pull them snug. To test whether it’s fitted properly, pull up on the shoulders. Your child’s ears and chin should not slip through the life jacket.

Water wings, rescue rings and boat cushions are not a replacement for life jackets, and life jackets shouldn’t be a substitute for a designated “water watcher” keeping an active eye on children in the water.

The Mary Bridge Center for Childhood Safety offers free loaner life jackets year-round. Call 253-403-1234 for more information. 

3. Enroll your children in swimming lessons.

Swimming doesn’t drown-proof a person, but it’s an important skill to have — and the only sport that could potentially save your life, Summa says.

Enroll your children in swimming lessons every summer to maintain and grow their skills, she suggests.

“It’s not a box you check — it’s ongoing education,” she adds.

The Y of Pierce and Kitsap Counties offers a variety of youth and adult swim lessons at multiple locations. Visit the Y’s website for more information.

Metro Parks Tacoma offers swim lessons as well, plus outdoor and indoor pools open to the public. More information.

More water safety tips from Mary Bridge Center for Childhood Safety

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