Everybody in Alaska knows somebody who died in a boating accident. In one year, Alaskan Mike Folkerts lost two friends in separate boating accidents.
"First, I got mad," said Folkerts. "Then, eventually I decided to do something about it." Folkerts, at various times a bush pilot, hunting guide and business manager, finally sold his plane and bought a diesel-powered Bayliner motor yacht.
"Whenever we went out, it seemed like we were helping people out of trouble," said Folkerts. "It's what Alaskans do."
The Coast Guard and Auxiliary noticed Mike and his wife Noreen were often the first good Samaritans on scene to lend a hand. When the Auxiliary invited them to join up, Mike and Noreen accepted.
Folkerts added Kawasaki Jet Skis to his personal Auxiliary flotilla — they coincidentally came in the Coast Guard colors. They've gotten mixed reviews from the Coasties.
"Some don't see the Jet Ski as a viable rescue vehicle," Folkerts said. But because they're fast, maneuverable and easy to launch, Folkerts was even more frequently and more quickly in a place to lend a hand.
"One night, two guys fell asleep at their helms and ran aground at the same time," said Folkerts.
In many waters, that's an inconvenience, not a disaster. But walk down the steeply inclined 50-yard aluminum ramps to the floating docks and look up. The docks drop as much as 25 feet on a falling tide, sliding up and down pilings that tower overhead. If a boat hits a submerged rock and gets stuck on it, as the tide falls out from under it, it can topple down like a loose stone. That was the threat to these drowsy captains and their crews.
"I zipped back and forth between the two of them most of the night checking to see if the boats looked sound and watertight, keeping the Coast Guard informed. Both boats got off the rocks fine when the tide came up later," Folkerts recalled.
Throughout Alaska — and North America too — most boating accidents end that way. Egos are bruised, boats are scratched and propellers dinged. Even so, in Alaska, a higher proportion of accidents end badly. Boating in Alaska claimed 12 lives in 2008. That's nearly two per 100,000 citizens and about one per every 4,000 registered boats.
"That's about five times the fatality rate of other states," said Folkerts.
Alaskan officials are at a loss to pinpoint any one cause and admit it might be many causes. Cold water reduces the time a person can survive in the water and reduces the time one can self-rescue. The effects of cold-water immersion in water 50 degrees and under are the killer, more so than hypothermia.
"People like to say all a life jacket does is make it easier to find the body in a search and rescue," said Coast Guard Auxiliarist Maria Mattson. Maria is a bookkeeper by trade.
"What it really does is give you about an hour and a half to be rescued," added her husband, Bob, an Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation employee and Auxiliary volunteer.
"Hypothermia takes at least an hour to kill you in 50-degree water," Folkerts said. "But the cold shock can rob you of coordinated movement and even coherent thought in as little as five minutes. Then, it becomes impossible to keep your airway clear of the water. That's what kills most boaters in Alaska's waters. Even if you have a life jacket in hand, if you have to burn energy to fasten it to your body, your chances for rescue go way down."