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Boating safely prevents drowning

I was out on Lake Mendota in Wisconsin recently, enjoying a little jaunt in a little boat. I didn’t give much thought to drowning until a motorboat came zooming by, its wake causing our little craft to wobble more than I was comfortable with.

We held on, but it was scary. Was I wearing a life jacket? Nope. Had I been enjoying a drink? Yep – I’d had my Guinness, though I was far from drunk. I’m a decent swimmer, but I wasn’t Boy-Scout-prepared, was I?

Several years ago, I rafted down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park, trying something a bit gutsier than my usual cautious self does. It started with a 10-mile hike down the park’s Bright Angel Trail – 4,300 feet down – ending at Phantom Ranch.

Majestic doesn’t begin to describe it. If you love to hike, if you love water, if you want excitement, this is the trip for you.

At noon, the six of us and a guide climbed into our inflatable boat and off we went. Unfortunately, one hour later, we capsized. I was underwater for 45 seconds.

A digression here: If you ever find yourself unexpectedly underwater, start counting. That way you’ll know how long you are really under. At about 30 seconds I thought, “Gee, I bet I can take a teeny breath.” But my brain said, “No way.”

But back to Lake Mendota. Could I really drown there? Yes, I could.

On average, 50 Wisconsinites drown every year. A recent article in the British Medical Journal titled “Should we make life jackets compulsory?” is worth discussing.

The article focused on a study out of Australia, where there are lots of boats. The state of Victoria saw more and more drownings year after year, leading them to pass a law in 2005 making life jacket use mandatory.

In the six-year period before the law was enacted, 59 recreational boaters drowned. In the five years after the law came into effect, the death toll fell to 16. And nine of those people were not wearing life jackets.

Flotation devices weren’t the only factor. Head injury, cold weather, alcohol use and not sounding the alarm for other boaters to help also played a role.

Perhaps we should start the way we always do in Wisconsin, with sensible guidelines.

• If there are kids on the boat, buckle them up just like you would in your car.

• Make sure you have life jackets on your boat, one for every passenger.

• Consider wearing a personal flotation device that fits on your belt like a fanny pack. When they hit the water, a carbon dioxide cartridge activates, inflating the PFD like a pillow. Do a Google search for “inflatable PFD belt” to see what they look like.

• If you’re a nonswimmer, learn to swim. There are many adult swimming classes available at the Y and private pools, too. I learned in my 20s. It wasn’t easy, and I was terrified. It took courage and work, but now I can swim and I love it. If I can do it, so can you.

• And finally, let’s talk about booze. How much is too much? Know for yourself when to say when – and as is the case with other motor vehicles, don’t drink and drive.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a physician, university professor, author and broadcast journalist.

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