Probing for Sensible Limits

Indignation spread through the online sailing community when word got out that the U.S. Coast Guard planned to make anyone on a boat shorter than 21 feet wear a personal flotation device full-time. As usual on the Internet, the story got way ahead of itself, but the Coast Guard had in fact floated the idea to the National Boating Safety Advisory Council, which suggested looking instead at how to get people in small boats to wear the PFDs they're already carrying. So an industry workshop devoted to the topic will be held at the Miami Boat Show, Feb. 13th. But no regulation has been written yet, and even if it were, it would be a very long process, says Jim Muldoon, a past president of US SAILING who has chaired the NBSAC for five years. That's good news, because we're already making progress toward safer sailboat racing without an unnecessary and onerous new regulation. Muldoon points out that the Coast Guard is fulfilling its basic obligation to consider how to make boating safer, and that the annual statistics on boating fatalities (http://www.uscgboating.org) show the Coast Guard's impressive track record. Since the 1971 Boating Safety Act was passed, even as annual power and sailboat registrations have nearly tripled, fatalities have dropped from about 1,500 to 750. Over the years, the Coast Guard has addressed problem areas by requiring PFD wear on personal watercraft, rental kayaks, and canoes. Now they're looking at the most recent numbers, which show that drowning remains the most common way to die in a boat (524 of 750 deaths) and that in most cases people weren't wearing PFDs and were lost from small boats. The statistics for those of us in sailboats shows that in 2002 only seven people drowned while aboard a sailboat that had an engine and only one drowned from a non-powered sailboat (i.e. likely a boat under 21 feet). Racing sailors shouldn't take too much comfort in this--the Coast Guard hasn't been counting deaths during "supervised events," i.e. races. Although it doesn't happen often, most of us know of racers who have drowned. The bottom line is we don't have accurate stats on drowning deaths during races (although Muldoon says the Coast Guard will start counting in 2004). Most racers agree it's usually a good idea to wear flotation, and we have rules to that effect for some classes and situations. I usually wear my PFD when I race; the crews I race with wear PFDs regularly, too; and looking around our one-design keelboat fleets I see we're not alone. Racers' attitudes toward wearing flotation have made a positive change in the 10 years since Larry Klein died in the Big Boat Series, and the trend has only been reinforced by more and more comfortable PFDs (see "Performance Starts with Fit," July/Aug. '02). It makes sense to require children to wear PFDs and for race organizers to consider personal safety gear requirements in distance events or windy, cold-water venues. It makes sense to get better educated about when we're most at risk (see stormtrysail.org for guidelines on when to wear a harness and flotation--at night, anytime in winds over 25 knots, etc.). And let's keep pushing for more effective, comfortable PFDs. But let's not start requiring them all the time for adult racers. We'd save more lives mandating high SPF sunscreen. Whether or not you agree with me, tell the Coast Guard and others what you think. Meantime, we'll cover the Miami forum in our next issue. WRITE TO USCG: Richard Kanehl, uscginfoline@gcrm.coml; PFD Mfgs. Assn: Bernice McArdle, bmcardle@nmma.org; US SAILING, info@ussailing.org; SW, editorial@sailingworld.com