I Learned About Boating From This: A Proper Fit

One size does not fit all when it comes to life jackets.
I Learned About Boating From This: A Proper Fit
I Learned About Boating From This: A Proper Fit Bill Doster

When you see the impact of overlooked safety rules, their logic rings crisply through the “be a safe boater” white noise.

Life jackets are required on board, and, in most states, youth under 12 or 13 years of age must wear them. What is astonishingly ignored is the requirement that the life jacket actually fit the child. Boaters all too often go with the “good enough” rule and use an oversize jacket.

The impact of this loose rationale became all too personal one afternoon during a photo shoot. I was manning the chase boat for our photographer and a public landing was a half-mile away.


Focused on holding the boat and cameraman in position for his shot, I noticed the sound of an outboard powering up from the landing, then stopping suddenly with a thump. After we captured our photo about 10 minutes later, I looked out and saw what appeared to be a dozen ducks paddling about. We went for a look.

As we approached, the ducks were actually fishing tackle, boat gear, life jackets and a fuel tank drifting away. About 50 yards farther, two men were treading water, and the younger man was oddly propping up an adult-size life jacket on the stem of his upturned boat.

Then the life jacket moved. Crying and wailing inside it, with enough room to privately change clothes, was a young boy.


Inside the next 10 minutes, we pulled this crew from the water and began to right and raise their boat.

What We Learned
People under duress make bad decisions. Duress is usually caused by previous bad decisions.

First, the young man had just launched his “restored” skiff after gutting some rotted wood and removing the flotation from it.


Second, the “bang” was the sound of a plank, used to raise the outboard’s trim angle, snapping.

Third, the skipper instantly chopped his power, and the older gent stepped aft to look — and that’s when the following wake rolled over the transom.

Quick Tip
If your child’s life jacket has a crotch strap, buckle it so he or she can’t slide out of the vest.

This crew’s bad decisions continued as they failed to prioritize between the need to secure life and the desire to secure the sinking vessel. And their panic level increased because the father realized that, deep beneath his irrational rage, the biggest cause for alarm — the peril to his son — was entirely the result of his decisions.


Boating is a sport with a body of rules. Some are for fun and most are for safety. A coach once told me, “Contrary to popular belief, practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Boating is exactly that way.

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