Recreational Boating Safety Basics

According to the Drowning Prevention Research Centre, there are around 100 recreational boating-related deaths in Canada every year.

To combat these accidents — most of which are preventable — Transport Canada (TC) has doubled down on its resolve to make boaters aware of the dangers of recreational boating, and how to avoid them. This mission, according to TC, has become more pressing in recent years, as recreational boating has surged in popularity since 2020.

According to TC, in 80 per cent of all boating-related fatalities, the deceased was not wearing a personal flotation device (PFD). Furthermore, a PFD was properly worn in only 13 per cent of boating-related deaths. Legally, there must be at least one PFD per person on board any boat.

“Wearing your PFD is the best chance that you’re going to come home safely,” said Sharon Sellars, Boating Safety Officer with TC. “A lot of these reasons where they were bulky or uncomfortable or they had to be red, orange or yellow… Those would have been the reason people gave in the past [for not wearing PFDs]. Of course, PFDs are a lot more comfortable now.”

Another risk factor highlighted by TC is alcohol consumption. According to the Canadian Red Cross, 50 per cent of individuals who died in boating related incidents are found to or are suspected to have consumed alcohol. A condition known as boating fatigue, which is brought on by a combination of sun, wind, noise, vibration and the movement of the boat can exacerbate the effects of alcohol by up to four times its normal effect.

While some may be unaware, Sellars pointed out that the same regulations around drinking and driving apply equally to boats.

“You’re not allowed to have open alcohol in a boat like that. It’s under the criminal code that you would be charged, so operating a boat would carry the same charge if you were operating a car or another motor vehicle,” said Sellars. “When it comes to being the operator and driving a boat, it has to be the same as if you were in a car — you can’t do it.”

As any boater in Canada would know, the waters in and around Canada are cold. These frigid waters happen to be the third-leading cause of boating-related deaths in Canada, after improper use of a PFD and alcohol consumption. In around 50 per cent of boating fatalities, cold water was determined to be a factor. These three factors often work in tandem, as the shock of coldwater immersion can be exacerbated by alcohol consumption and can cause hyperventilation and muscle paralysis, leaving even strong swimmers struggling to stay afloat.

“Regardless of if you’re a good swimmer, you’re going to hyperventilate in that first minute,” said Sellars. “If you have your PFD on, and if you understand that’s going to happen, you’re going to be floating and you can get your breathing under control.”

Swimmers in water between 4.4 to 9.9 degrees Celsius lose dexterity in under five minutes and lose consciousness between 30–60 minutes and submersion.

Sellars said that the difference between life and death is as simple as preparing ahead. One example she gave was to post a sail plan to people you know, so that they can organize a search and rescue effort should you not return at your scheduled time.

“You want to make sure you’re carrying all the required safety equipment that is in good working order, you know how to use it, you have enough fuel onboard and you should always check the weather, of course, when you go boating,” said Sellars.

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