Boating safety applies to Alaska paddlers, mariners equally

Historical Image of Native Alaskan Kayakers courtesy Alutiiq Museum

Historical Image of Native Alaskan Kayakers courtesy Alutiiq Museum

The Alaska Native coastal people who mastered survival in the world’s harshest climate did not shrink from the open ocean — they respected it, lived with it, and made its rich resources an integral part of their tradition.

The seagoing technology they perfected through centuries of practical testing represents a triumph of craftsmanship, training and applied design. With every kayak custom-fitted to its user, the handmade watercraft worked like the ultimate personal flotation device.

Alaska’s waters are no more forgiving today than when Yupik, Inupiaq and Aleut hunters first pursued their quarry far off shore. Now anyone with a hankering to explore maritime nature close up can buy a plastic kayak at a local outlet store and drop it in the water half an hour later.

That’s a great boon for recreational boaters, but also a chance to neglect safety. Among people bred to the sea, complacency poses another danger, and you sometimes see an experienced boater riding on the gunwales of a skiff, wearing no life jacket.

And in Alaska, as throughout the country, hunters and fishermen — who often don’t think of themselves as “boaters” — get into trouble by losing their balance in small craft.

Fortunately, Alaskans have easy access to solutions for these potential sources of danger, starting with the Alaska Boater’s Handbook published by the Office of Boating Safety. Widely available at Division of Motor Vehicles offices, harbormasters and sporting goods dealers, it provides a concise introduction to state and federal boating laws, emergency procedures and important safety equipment.

To encourage community-wide, permanent improvements in water safety, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and its partner agencies encourage a two-pronged approach: promoting the use of life vests, and boater education courses.

Kid's Don't Float

Kids Don’t Float began in Homer, Alaska, in early 1996. The Homer Fire Department, with a grant from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, collaborated with Homer Safe Kids, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, and the Homer School District to establish 15 life jacket loaner stations in communities around Kachemak Bay. Photo courtesy the Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources Office of Boating Safety.

The law requires only that a vessel carry enough life vests for all passengers and crew (boaters under 13 years old must wear their life jackets unless in an enclosed cabin). Alaskans should take that a step further and make zipping on a life vest for a boat ride as normal as clicking on a seat belt in a car as the easiest way to improve the odds of survival in case of an accident.

The effort to promote life vest use has already paid off with a steady decline in recreational boating deaths in Alaska. The commercial fishing industry has enjoyed a dramatic decline in casualties, thanks to the adoption of survival suits, electronic position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs), and training in their use.

Thanks to the Kids Don’t Float loaner program, boaters at many Alaska harbors and launch areas have access to free life vests in child and adult sizes. Users can borrow the vests as needed and simply return them to the storage chests on the dock when they return.

Manufacturers have helped make life vest use easier, introducing a wider choice of specially designed products for activities like kayaking, hunting, water skiing and deck work. Vests come in eye-catching colors and camouflage patterns for a range of prices. In 2011 Mustang Survival manufactured all-white float coats for use by Alaska Native whaling crews who needed the special camouflage for their traditional subsistence hunts in the Arctic.

The other main avenue for improving water safety, public education, is also more widely available and in more forms than ever, and has proved effective.

Coastie the Safety Boat, an animatronic character operated by several Coast Guard Auxiliary flotillas in Alaska, visits classrooms and public events to teach young children basic boating rules like always wear a life vest, never ride in the bow, and “reach and throw but never go.” The Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program has materials and lessons for older children.

The Office of Boating Safety offers training for various ages. The Coast Guard Auxiliary teaches About Boating Safely, an eight-hour course for beginning boaters, and offers specialty courses in navigation and seamanship.

For kayakers and canoeists, the Auxiliary has Paddlesports America, a basic four-hour introduction to equipment, laws and emergency procedures. Several organizations offer hands-on training for paddlers, including the American Canoe Association, Alaska Sea Kayak Symposium, Knik Canoers and Kayakers, and Alaska Kayak School.

For commercial fishermen, Alaska Marine Safety Education Association instructors teach a curriculum used as a model throughout the country.

By 2015, commercial fishing vessels that operate in state or federal waters must undergo mandatory vessel examinations by the Coast Guard to ensure compliance with safety regulations. The Auxiliary offers courtesy vessel exams for recreational boat owners and never issues tickets or fines.

The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary is the Coast Guard’s uniformed civilian volunteer component, with more than 39,000 members nationwide. Drew Herman is the Auxiliary public affairs officer for the Alaska district.

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