Things I Just Don’t Understand

Life jackets save lives

Members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary regularly sponsor boating safety education classes that discuss the importance of water safety and wearing a life jacket.

by Captain Wayne Muilenburg, 1st Coast Guard District Chief of Prevention


I just don’t get it.

At the risk of peeling away some of the veneer that’s associated with the exalted title “Chief of Prevention,” I’ll be the first to admit there’s a lot I don’t understand.

– Electricity, for example. It’s pure magic to me.

– Having to remember whether LDL or HDL is the good kind of cholesterol. I need to look it up every time.

– Why, when I purchase a car, it costs me $400 for “documentation and prep fees.

– Why year after year, in spite of the tragedies, so many boaters refuse to wear a lifejacket.

Years and years worth of statistics, data, analysis and anecdotes all consistently lead to the same exact conclusion, without fail, and without regard to geography, gender, age, or ability: Lifejackets save lives.

Still every year, invariably throughout the Northeast, we see an average of 53 people lose their lives while boating recreationally. And of those 53 lives, 85 to 88 percent are not wearing a lifejacket. I’m not making that number up, although admittedly it’s such a large percentage it seems like I am.

That’s a stark lesson in causality, not coincidence.

But the question remains: Why do some still refuse to wear lifejackets?

Is it because they plan to put one on when the emergency strokes?

This approach is frequently thwarted by the panic that comes with being presented with a rare life and death situation. Unfortunately, despite the tragedies, some still choose to take that chance.

Is it because those boaters think lifejackets are uncomfortable?

When we hear the word “lifejacket,” many of us may think of the large, orange, bulky foam lifejackets worn around the neck with straps going down the back, wrapping around the leg, and coming up the thigh near the groin. But we’ve come a long way! I’m here to tell you with today’s inflatable lifejacket technology, boaters have no reason not to wear a lifejacket of some kind while boating.

Is it because those boaters think wearing a lifejacket hinders movement?

If you haven’t worn newer models of lifejackets in a few years, I suspect you’d be surprised at how unencumbered you can feel while wearing one. Today’s inflatable lifejackets use compressed air (CO2) to fill themselves to provide buoyancy when inflated, and come in two main styles: the “belt pack” and “suspender-style.” The belt pack is worn around the waist and resembles a fanny pack. The suspender-style is a thin lightweight design worn over the shoulders. Both offer excellent comfort and range of motion.

Is it because some boaters reassure themselves that they know how to swim, so there’s no need for one?

Even the best swimmers can be knocked unconscious in an accident. And most lifejackets are designed to keep the head above water when that occurs. Secondly, it’s amazing how quickly the cold waters of the Northeast can impact one’s motor skills and drain the ability to swim or paddle. And finally, there’s no way of knowing what the injury will be or how it may impact one’s ability to swim.

Is it because “It’s not going to happen to me?”

It is the very nature of accidents to catch us off guard. Can you imagine what it would be like if 85 to 88 percent of drivers didn’t have auto insurance? Lifejackets are one-time investments in life insurance.

The many questions, and the heartbreaking tragedies that lead us to ask them, send us one resounding message: When you need your lifejacket, you need it on, not just available.

During my time as Chief of Prevention, I hope that message resonates with boaters throughout the Northeast. I’d love to be able to remove at least one thing from the list of things I don’t understand.

Life jackets save lives

For young children, the law requires the use of a life jacket. Members of the Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary work to educate the boating public on ways to stay safe and have fun on the water.