PUBLISHED: 4:51 PM on Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Boater Beware
Statistics show recreational boating has more fatalities than commercial fishing
The difference between life and death at sea could be as simple as having the right equipment and preparing for worst-case scenarios, said a U.S. Coast Guard boating safety specialist.

In 2007, 17 recreational boaters died in Alaskan waters, nearly three times the number of commercial fisherman (six), according to Coast Guard data. In 2006, 14 recreational boaters were lost at sea compared to eight commercial fishermen.

Mike Folkerts, U.S. Coast Guard recreational boating safety specialist for District 17, said Alaska has the highest fatality rate of recreational boaters in the United States.

"That's a stat we don't like to brag about," he said. "Commercial fishermen have one of the most dangerous occupations, but recreational boaters are also at risk."

Due to the hazards of boating in Alaska, Folkerts said a float plan, which outlines trip details, should always be a top priority before heading out to sea.

Last Friday, the U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search for two Southeast Alaska mariners who were reported missing in late February. Michael Dunne, of Ketchikan, and Vern McGee, of Juneau, left Juneau on Feb. 22 heading toward Ketchikan.

The men did not file a float plan in advance, reported the Juneau Empire on Sunday.

Folkerts said always wearing a life jacket could give boaters a fighting chance, but icy waters provide little time for self-rescue. About 75-80 percent of boaters who die at sea aren't wearing a life jacket, he said.

"The life jacket buys you time; hopefully enough to get rescued," he said. "But if boaters can't self-rescue or get out of the water they succumb to the affects of cold-water immersion and hypothermia.

"There are some myths about hypothermia. Some people are lucky to live long enough to die of hypothermia. Most drown or die of cold-water immersion first."

Cold-water immersion restricts small blood vessels in the body, leading to blood pressure spiking. Extremities quickly become numb and individuals lose the ability to swim as a result.

"Statistically, if you were challenged to swim the length of an Olympic swimming pool - one has 45-degree water and one has 80-degree water with alligators in it ... statistically you have less chance of surviving in the 45-degree water."

Once in the water, boaters have several minutes to act quickly before cold-water immersion sets in. Folkerts said climbing onto the overturned hull of a boat can save lives, but even then boaters need the means to signal for help. He referenced a couple of boaters who put their cell phones in Ziploc baggies and were able to call for help when their vessel sunk, enabling the boaters to be rescued.

Another option is purchasing a waterproof marine VHF radio. They key, he said, is to carry items on your person buy attaching them to a life jacket; not leave them packed away on the boat.

At the 29th annual Glacier Valley Rotary Boat and Sport Show to be held later this month, a presentation will focus on the Spot System. Spot is a new piece of technology that hit shelves last fall that combines E-mail and GPS technology; specifically geared towards boaters in distress.

"The Spot System has amazing capabilities - even when you're out of cell phone range you can still use Spot," said John Adams, business manager with Marine Exchange, a non-profit company created by U.S. Coast Guard Capt. (ret) Ed Page.

Spot is a portable, hand-held device and "could end up saving lives," Adams said.

"If you fall off your skiff and you have it on your life jacket, you can let people know where you are by e-mailing, something you can't do with just a GPS," he said. "When people go out in boats, they're supposed to file float plans to let someone know where they are but float plans often change. Spot is the ultimate float plan - it adapts."

The Spot System retails for about $165.

Folkerts said following state and federal regulations will ensure boaters are ship-shape before undocking. He said there are few discrepancies between Alaskan and federal laws.

Boaters must: have one life jacket per person on the vessel; have a type 4 throw able flotation device (for boats over 16-feet in length); have visual distress signals, such as pyrotechnics, handheld flairs or meteor flairs and a minimum three day/night red flairs; sound producing device; navigational lights; first aid kit; and fire extinguisher.

Fore more safety tips and state and federal boating regulations, visit and