On May 15, 2017, I went overboard into the 36-degree water of Newfound Lake, New Hampshire. If I had not been wearing my 40-year-old Stearns Type III life jacket, I would not be writing this account. First, some backstory.
I am a boating instructor for the State of New Hampshire. I teach the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators’ curriculum. I’ve been a boater since childhood. As long as I put on my life jacket, my parents allowed me to take out the rowboat by myself. I was 7 years old. I learned to sail our 16-foot sloop at age 8. My first real job was as a gas-dock attendant. I’ve cruised lakes Michigan and Huron, the Finger Lakes and the Erie Canal system. I’ve been at the wheel of a 65-foot schooner off Nova Scotia, and I’ve had a couple of “Cheeseburgers in Paradise” on Florida’s Cabbage Key, where it is rumored Jimmy Buffet made ’em famous. I’m an Aquarius. Boats and the water are in my blood.
On the day in question, I volunteered to help the staff of a summer camp transport their boats to a launch site to be inspected for the season. We used a pontoon boat, securing the aluminum skiffs, one on each side. The day was sunny with broken clouds, quite cool, and a lot windier than we had hoped.
Shortly after heading out, the bow of the boat lashed to the port side, broke free and swung away. The young man with me boarded the aluminum boat while I knelt on a bench seat to pass a line to him to resecure the boat. I leaned over to hand him the line, and I went headfirst into the water! The bench seat was not fastened to the deck of the pontoon, and the railing gave way.
I’m a pretty good swimmer at the ripe-old age of 69, but it took all I had to claw my way to the surface. My heavy, soaked clothing was weighing me down. The 15.5 pounds of buoyancy in my old life jacket were just enough to help me to the surface. I grabbed the deck of the pontoon and gave a couple of forced, loud exhalations to help control my breathing. That cold water was beginning to take its toll. The other man called 911, gave me the end of an oar, and helped me get up the boarding ladder.
Next thing I knew, I was in an ambulance getting stripped down and covered in warm blankets. It was embarrassing to be seen in this condition by one of my marine patrol colleagues, but better to be embarrassed than to drown because I hadn’t worn my life jacket.
When I got home, I weighed my plastic bag of wet clothes — it weighed 19 pounds! And they had even drip-dried for a while. Remember: It’s better to have it [a life jacket] and not need it than to need it and not have it!
Paul A. French Bridgewater, New Hampshire
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