Never too soon for boating safety

Lt. Nathaniel Sargent, a command duty officer at Coast Guard Sector Juneau, takes questions from Auke Bay Elementary School second-graders in Juneau, Alaska, Dec. 20, 2012. Sargent encouraged the students, as residents of a coastal town, to ask any questions they had about his job and water safety. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant DeVuyst.

A smattering of laughter and giddy voices slips under the door to Allison Smith’s second-grade class. The Auke Bay Elementary School students know a visitor is on the way, and their excitement is apparent.

With one hand on a dark green bag full of boating safety equipment, Lt. Nathan Sargent reaches for the handle and opens the door, bringing the volume to a whole new level. Sargent, a command duty officer at Coast Guard Sector Juneau, walks boldly into the chaotic room with a smile on his face.

In a voice packed with the blend of authority and gentleness only school teachers seem to possess, Smith calls for order, and the commotion in the room quickly reaches a tolerable level.

“We’re going to do some dancing while you get ready,” said Smith.

Sargent goes about staging the flotation devices he brought along throughout the room as the students engage in a synchronized song-and-dance about making mashed potatoes. A father of one of the students, Sargent grins the whole time. Out of the bag come lifejackets of many shapes, sizes and colors.

Getting the focus of a classroom full of 7-year-olds is no small task, so Sargent showed up to the school prepared with entertaining demonstrations. With a subject as serious as boating safety, making your point is of the utmost importance.

When Sargent asks which students have been on boats, it is no surprise that the little residents of coastal Juneau, Alaska, all raised their hands. In a community where waterborne activities are so prevalent, it is never too soon to start stressing boating safety.

After talking to the class about his job and why they should wear lifejackets, Sargent set up a lifejacket-donning relay race, and every student quickly became either a participant or a cheerleader.

The scene almost seems too fun for a lesson, but the learning is clearly happening as one student turns to help another finish buckling his lifejacket.

Smith, who invited parents of the students to visit the class so students could learn about their community, understands the gravity of the lessons taught by Sargent.

“I think the water safety aspect is really beneficial,” she said.

As Sargent packs up his water safety tools, the class returns to its earlier hubbub for snack time. His mission to educate future boaters is done for now. With a rowdy “thank you” from the students and their teacher, he heads out the door.

“Today’s boating safety lesson parallels our other efforts in the Arctic and throughout the state,” said Mike Folkerts, recreational boating safety specialist for the 17th Coast Guard District. “Our peer educator program trains students to not only wear their lifejackets into adulthood, but also pass down the habit to younger children.”

In Alaska, children 13 years of age and younger are required by law to wear their lifejackets while on the water. Many communities host loaner lifejacket boards, also known as Kid’s Don’t Float boards, in their harbors and boat launches.

According to a report by the Alaska Office of Boating Safety, Alaska’s lifejacket-wearing statistics now exceed those of the lower 48 states.

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