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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

No Excuse Not to Wear Lifejackets

No children died in Wisconsin boating accidents for six straight years between 2012 and 2017 before three young girls and their father died Aug. 30 last year after the family’s kayak capsized off the Bayfield Peninsula in Lake Superior.

In fact, of Wisconsin’s 190 boating-related deaths from 2009 through 2018, only five (2.6%) involved children or teenagers 17 and younger. All were girls. In addition to the 3-, 5- and 9-year-old Fryman sisters who died with their father, Eric, in August’s tragedy, a 9-year-old girl disappeared from her kayak in Lake Michigan near Sheboygan in June 2010, and a 13-year-old girl died in June 2011 when her personal watercraft struck another boat.

But as Wisconsin headed into Memorial Day weekend and National Safe Boating Week concluded May 24, safety officials were reminding boaters that everyone should wear a lifejacket, not just children.

Wisconsin recorded a record 25 boating-related deaths in 2017; and 21 fatalities in 2015, 2016 and 2018. The state also recorded at least 20 boating fatalities in seven of the past 14 years. The current streak of four straight years with over 20 boating fatalities is a modern-day record, according to annual reports by the Department of Natural Resources.

“The vast majority of Wisconsin’s boating fatalities are from drowning, not collisions or drinking,” said Todd Schaller, the DNR’s chief warden. “Most boating fatalities occur when boats capsize or people fall overboard. If everyone wore lifejackets, Wisconsin wouldn’t come close to 20 fatalities each year.”

Of the 260 deaths in Wisconsin boating accidents since 2005, 215 (83%) victims weren’t wearing a personal flotation device, or PFD. Schaller said anglers, boaters, kayakers, sail-boaters, paddleboarders and anyone else using watercraft have no excuse to not wear lifejackets, given today’s comfortable, affordable options.

“You don’t have to wear those orange horse-collar life preservers your parents made you wear as a kid,” Schaller said. “Life-vests and self-inflating lifejackets are affordable, and you barely know you’re wearing them. I’ve forgotten I even had mine on until I started driving home.”

Unfortunately, even though most parents insist their kids wear lifejackets, they don’t wear one themselves. “Parents need to set the example and put on a lifejacket as soon as they get into the boat,” Schaller said. “It needs to become a lifetime habit for everyone. The more you do it, the more it becomes like buckling your seatbelt in your car.”

Schaller said most states require children to wear a PFD, but Wisconsin legislators have never made it law. Federal laws, however, require children 13 and under to wear PFDs on federally regulated waters such as Lake Michigan, Green Bay and the Mississippi River.

“It seems most people in Wisconsin think lifejackets are mandatory for kids, but they aren’t on most waters,” Schaller said. “It’s OK if people think that, but other than local ordinances passed by some townships, it’s not mandatory. We just wish it were.”

One reason parents might think PFDs are mandatory is a popular program called “Kids Don’t Float Lifejacket Loaner Board.” It’s a cooperative effort between the DNR and local Scouts, hospitals, fishing clubs, lake associations and other groups to provide loaner lifejackets at boat landings around Wisconsin. After using the PFDs, users return them to the station before heading home. The program’s visibility boosts awareness for using PFDs, Schaller said.

The DNR reports at least 110 loaner stations statewide. The agency provides signage, construction materials and life jackets. Its partner groups must obtain permission to place, build and maintain the structure, and check it occasionally for theft and damage. Each station stocks three infant, eight child, eight youth, eight adult, five adult XL, and four Type IV throwable life-preservers.

The DNR’s boating-fatality reports also show Wisconsin bucking a national trend of increasing deaths for kayaking and paddleboarding. The popularity of small, single-person kayaks has risen steadily nationwide since 2000, as have paddleboards the past decade. Interest in canoeing, meanwhile, is declining.

Fatalities, however, have risen with kayaking and paddleboarding, and declined for canoeing. Records kept by the U.S. Coast Guard show deaths among canoeists nationwide peaked at 93 in 2009. In 2011, kayaking fatalities hit 68 while canoeing deaths fell to 66. And in 2017, kayaking deaths hit 94 while canoeing deaths fell to 44.

Paddleboarding deaths numbered only three nationwide in 2012, but hit 15 in 2016 before dropping to 11 in 2017. Of those 15 deaths in 2016, 14 victims weren’t wearing PFDs.

In Wisconsin, canoes, kayaks, rowboats, windboards and paddleboards accounted for 49 of the state’s 190 boating fatalities (26%) the past 10 years, with only three paddleboarding deaths among them: one each in 2013, 2017 and 2018.

Schaller reports high PFD compliance and safety awareness among Wisconsin’s kayakers and paddleboarders.

“Paddle sports are booming, and those industries—and the people who sell and rent kayaks and paddleboards—stress safety,” Schaller said. “Safety messages make a big impression, coming from the business itself. People also realize they can easily fall off a paddleboard, so they keep their guard up. In general, we see more people in small craft wearing lifejackets. They’re close to the water, and they’re in a boat that’s sometimes tippy. They know they’re vulnerable.”

To learn more about boating safety in Wisconsin or to take an online boating class, click on

Wisconsin Boating Fatalities, 2005-2018

Year Deaths Males No PFD Alcohol Canoe/Kayak/Rowboat/Board

2018 21 17 14 02 6*

2017 25 21 23 06 8*

2016 21 21 19 03 7

2015 21 20 19 08 4

2014 09 09 08 05 2

2013 13 13 11 01 2*

2012 23 21 17 11 4

2011 23 21 18 12 8

2010 18 13 14 04 2

2009 16 16 16 04 6

2008 20 19 16 09 8

2007 18 17 12 06 2

2008 10 NR 09 06 1

2005 22 NR 19 05 4

Totals: 260 208 215 62 64

(18.6 ave.) (91.3%) (82.7%) (23.8%) (25.4%)

* 1 Paddleboard fatality.

Males made up 91 percent of Wisconsin’s boating fatalities since 2006, and 83 percent of the 260 victims since 2004 weren’t wearing a personal flotation device. Photos by Patrick Durkin

DNR warden Ed McCann talks with an angler wearing a self-inflating life-jacket, which allows greater flexibility and maneuverability for fishing, canoeing or kayaking. They’re triggered by water pressure, not moisture from rain or waves.

Canoes, kayaks and paddleboards have become especially popular in Wisconsin since 2000, and their users tend to be safety-conscious. They account for only 25% of the state’s boating fatalities since 2005.

DNR warden Ed McCann checks out a fishing family on Lake Winnebago. Wisconsin parents are ensuring their children wear life-jackets. No children died in Wisconsin boating accidents between 2012 and 2017

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