Wear Your PFD Full Time on the Water?

I once received two FWC (Florida marine patrol) email press releases that made me think about PFDs. The first email was about Florida’s boating fatalities, which have declined. In the press release were several suggestions to prevent accidents. One was that most boating fatalities are caused by inattention and going too fast, so the suggestion was to stay alert and slow down. Another comment was to be especially careful when consuming alcoholic beverages. Sounds smart to me.

Then there was a comment that most boating fatalities are from drowning, and most of those victims knew how to swim. This was followed by the following comment: “The greatest way to ensure that you and your passengers make it home at the end of the day is to get into the habit of wearing a life jacket.”

I then received another press release on Mother’s Day. The e-mail suggested that one of the new styles of comfortable life jackets is the “perfect” Mother’s Day gift. I wasn’t too sure about that. Flowers might beat a PFD for the perfect gift. But these e-mails sparked an old thought in my head about wearing life jackets, also bringing to mind the periodic push by police and the Coast Guard to make PFD-wearing mandatory: Why do people promote something that will never happen voluntarily as the cure-all answer for boating safety? Plus—if the mandatory wearing of PFDs ever does happen, it will be about as popular as prohibition.

Personally, I have no intention of ever getting into the habit of wearing a PFD full time, and I would guess that about 99 percent of the people I know who have spent time on boats would agree with me (taking children out of this discussion)—although there are situations that I could be in that I would wear them 100 percent of the time. I can think of several right offhand:  alone in high winds and rough seas; sailing with others at night in rough seas; leaving the cockpit on a boat deck at night in any conditions. I could go on, but the point is clear: I would advise people that the first thing for getting back to a dock alive and safely is good judgment gained from experience and boating knowledge. Good judgment tells me when to wear a PFD. Are there risks in not wearing one? Of course. So what?

I have a 17-foot center console powerboat that I will often take out alone. On a beautiful day in calm seas, I won’t even consider wearing a PFD. When I go faster than idle, whether it is calm or not, I will automatically put the strap around my wrist that kills the engine if I leave the helm. If it is rough, I will put on a PFD. But there is not a chance in hell that I will wear one in calm, beautiful conditions. Anyone who thinks that, I will unequivocally and unapologetically declare that they are out of their minds or from another planet. So why promote it?

Good judgment also tells me when someone on my boat must wear a PFD. When I get passengers on board who are strangers, I will first ask them if they are comfortable being on a boat and around the water and if they can swim. If they are not afraid of the water, then half the battle is won. If they are afraid, then I talk to them about being on the boat and PFDs. Everyone gets instruction on where the PFDs are. Of course, there are people who should wear a PFD all the time. Good judgment will find those.

So why promote the use of PFDs full time as the answer for all boating safety? It doesn’t exactly make one look reasonable. Yes—Coast Guard personnel wear PFDs full time on the water, but they are in the military and working. We are out there recreating. Do Coast Guard personnel wear PFDs when they are on the water with their friends and family while off-duty or after they are out of the service? How about the FWC police and other water police?

Do we want to promote good judgment or do we want to promote: “Wear your PFD all the time”? Will the latter create a mentality where everything will be okay if you have a PFD on?

When we promote good judgment, then we promote the belief that people can learn to make good judgments; when we promote blanket actions, then we promote the belief that people can’t learn to make good judgments. (Yes, I know. Some can’t. Those people should wear PFDs.)

How’s that saying go?

Success comes from good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.

Hopefully, good judgment will be gained before a bad accident.