Soaring temperatures this weekend could mean a day on the lake for many – but don’t forget a life jacket.
Corey Carlton, a conservation officer with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, encourages everyone to enjoy area lakes this summer, but says everyone needs a life jacket regardless of age.
“Everybody, no matter private water or public water, needs to make sure that they have a life jacket and they wear it,” he said.
State law requires life jackets on every watercraft, whether it’s a motorized boat, jet ski, kayak, canoe, or even a paddle board. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 84% of drowning victims who died from a boating accident were not wearing their life jackets. The best way to be “saved by the jacket” is to wear it at all times, no matter the level of swimming or boating expertise.
Carlton is not alone in his summer safety effort. In 2020, members of South Central Iowa Community Foundation surprised the Union County Conservation Board with funding from a proactive grant for the establishment of a life jacket loaner shelter on the beach at Three Mile Lake, a popular lake for boaters and swimmers.
“The one drowning at Three Mile Lake the person didn’t have a life jacket on,” said Jones. “There’s no reason for him to ... drown if he has a life jacket on. He could sit out there and bob around all day with a life jacket on. But he didn’t and it cost him his life.”
The June 1999 drowning at Jones referred to is the only open water drowning he recalls in his time at Three Mile Lake. Drowning deaths have occurred in other county lakes and private farm ponds in recent years. In each incident, the victim was not wearing a life jacket.
Carlton said, even though water temperatures are on the rise, it can still be dangerous this time of the year.
“A lot of people believe they can swim, ... but you have to remember, especially water in early spring is extremely cold to our bodies,” he said. “We’re past the 50 degree water mark now, but you have a 50 percent chance of survival in 50 degree water or less for 50 minutes. You have 50 minutes to get out. Most people can tread water but ... we’re out of shape. To tread water for 10 minutes is pretty tough. I don’t believe many average people can do that, especially if you consider if they have any gear on.”
In Jones and Carlton’s opinion, most open water drownings are preventable if a life jacket is worn.
“It doesn’t matter if you fall out of a canoe, turn a kayak over, fall out of a boat, or are a small child in 3 feet of water at the beach. If you have a life jacket on, there’s a great chance that you’re probably not going to drown,” said Jones.
Jones said life jackets are critical for safety even while swimming in shallow water near the shore.
“If they come to the beach, it’s different than a swimming pool,” said Jones. “We have excellent water quality at Three Mile Lake, but if the beach gets turned up from everybody walking around ... you might think that you will see someone go under in 6 feet of water, but it’s not like at a pool where you can see the bottom, you can’t.”
Carlton said canoeing and kayaking are becoming more popular, but individuals – both experienced and novice users alike – need to wear a life jacket.
“We’ve seen that on the rise over the last few years and it’s gotten extremely popular because its affordable and you can go just about anywhere with them,” Carlton said. “But you’ve also got to understand that conditions can change very rapidly ... if the wind blows all of a sudden 20 miles an hour you can get tired pretty fast trying to paddle back against the wind.”
Carlton said smaller boats are also easier to capsize, but if it happens, he said it’s important to stay calm.
“I’ve been to drownings where, if a person would have just stood up instead of panicking, they were OK. When your body goes in to panic mode it’s hard to recover from that,” he said.
After capsizing, it’s important to stay with the water craft and to turn right side up, if possible. Unless the shore is in very close swimming distance, a person’s best bet is to cling to the craft and stay put. A properly fitted life jacket would support a person as they wait for assistance.
“For life jackets to work, but they must be properly sized and they meant to be worn,” Carlton said. “We’ve had instances before where they might have them on but not have them strapped. What happens when the boat capsizes? The life jacket stays up at the surface and you sink for a second. You can’t put a life jacket on in the water. It’s really hard to do. It’s extremely difficult, especially if you’re trying to swim.”
For more boating and water safety information and resources, visit safeboatingcampaign.com.