Why I wear a life jacket

Michelle Kelly Photo by Erin Leydon

In honour of National Drowning Prevention Week, we are republishing this Editor’s Note from the October 2021 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

Way back in 2007, I took a boating course as part of an assignment for this magazine. The idea was that I, a relatively inexperienced boat driver, would write about what it was like to learn. On the morning of the course, I was driving to the marina, counting my blessings that my job afforded me a day on the water, when my phone rang. It was then-editor of CL, Penny Caldwell, reminding me to wear a PFD in the photography that would accompany the story. Really? I asked her. Do I have to? It just seemed so…dorky. And I knew that wearing a PFD wasn’t required by law, and, besides, no one really does that, and it’s uncomfortable, and I was in my twenties and therefore felt generally invincible. Plus, I’m a strong swimmer! Penny insisted; it was important that the magazine model best practices.

When we can show images featuring people wearing PFDs or life jackets, we always do. Over a lifetime of cottaging, I have been in and out of hundreds of boats and spent countless hours on the water. In all that time, I’ve rarely worn a life jacket. Not when my kids were small, not when it was late at night, not in bad weather. I knew it was safer—I had seen the stats. But I was following the norm for most cottagers, who more often than not (especially back then) forgo wearing a PFD.

Recently, I’ve had a change of heart. It feels like every summer there is at least one major boating accident that makes the news, and in July 2021 one struck close to home—one of the families involved in a collision on Lake Rosseau, Ont., are friends of friends. The young mom and her teenage daughter were killed. While the specifics of that horrific incident are still under investigation, one thing is clear to me: if it can happen to them, it can happen to me. Accidents do happen. Why not do everything we possibly can to mitigate their effects?

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As of press time, there have been 23 boating fatalities on waterways patrolled by the OPP so far this year. Ninety-one per cent of the victims weren’t wearing PFDs. When we get into a car, we put on our seatbelt, but when we get into a boat, we feel safe knowing that there is a life jacket—the closest thing we have to a seatbelt on the water—stowed beneath a bench at the stern. Do we really think that the life jackets will just pop onto our bodies as we are suddenly thrown out of the boat? It’s pretty ridiculous to assume such a thing, but here we are, so many of us, assuming it all the time. This is a particularly treacherous assumption in the autumn, when the water grows colder and we’re often wearing layers of bulky clothing.

In the context of all that, PFDs are a no-brainer. But there is another part of the equation here. There’s a lot we can do to prevent accidents in the first place. According to Joe Gatfield, the chair of the Canadian Safe Boating Council, boating has blossomed during the pandemic as more people have turned to leisure activities close to home and within their bubble.

Great news for our boating industry, and great that more people can access our waterways. The challenge is, with boating, “you don’t just get in the water and do it,” he says. You need a licence, and that’s a good start, but there is nothing like an on-water lesson with an experienced instructor, as I learned first-hand when I took my course for the magazine all those years ago.

Experienced boaters also need to play a part in making our lakes safer. Organizations such as Safe Quiet Lakes (a group that aims to make boating safer for all watercraft users, from kayakers to wakeboarders) and the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations are working to promote safe boating. I encourage you to contact these groups for ways to increase education on your lake. Sometimes just communicating the problem is the biggest part of the solution.

At the cottage, we tend to do things the same way for generations. But a change, in this case, will do us good. I’ll be sporting a PFD when you next see me on the water—and I’ll be feeling safer for it.


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