On April 1 the National Safe Boating Advisory Council voted in a split decision to recommend that the U.S. Coast Guard begin an eight-year process of implementing mandatory personal flotation device wear for boaters. This occurred even though U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studies on lakes it manages show dismal compliance results. Just over 70 percent of boaters wear life jackets in places where they are required, according to a Corps report, and lackluster support by enforcement agencies, boaters and businesses is the cause. (Visit boatingmag.com/PFD to view the NSBAC and Corps documents.)
Nowhere was this bureaucratic disconnect more apparent than at Lake Mead. This spring rumors surfaced that the Corps had pressed a Lake Mead Recreation Area ranger to impose a mandatory PFD rule not just on boaters, but swimmers too.
Boaters and area marine businesses were caught off guard, dismayed and generally not receptive to the draconian measure. It’s unclear if the rule was a misplaced rumor or a bureaucratic misfire.
Matt Harvey, regional vice president for Forever Resorts, the group that popularized houseboating on many National Park Service waters, sees it more as a deterrent to boating than a safety movement.
“This would have been a kick in the kneecap to boating out here,” Harvey said.
Under the Corps’ proposed rule, local marine operators said, anyone on a boat would have to wear a life jacket, and in Harvey’s eyes, that adds two more objections to keep people out of the sport: “People can’t sunbathe with PFDs on, and boaters are going to look at it as just one more thing to cost them a ticket.”
While comfort and convenience are often cited as the overruled objections in the 1960s push for seat belts in autos, with life jackets in boating, there’s another question.
“Who’s going to want to wear a PFD when its 120 degrees outside?” asked Gary Wirth of Forever Resorts at Lake Mead. He added, “This is absolutely ridiculous. Lake Mead has had no boating fatalities that we know of. They’ve all happened when people were swimming, and usually from the shore.”
“If they have to wear PFDs, we’re afraid they will just go somewhere else,” said Gail Kaiser, of Las Vegas Boat Harbor on Lake Mead. “The Corps of Engineers doesn’t even have to ask for public input, and it steps on people’s rights,” Kaiser said.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Harvey said. “We are all about educating our boaters to be safer. And I think a 12-year-old child should be in a PFD if he can even see the water. But this? This is just another example of Big Brother putting his nose where it does not belong.” Dean Clarke, executive boating editor for Bonnier Corp., Boating magazine’s parent company, is a member of the NSBAC and opposed the recommendation.
“If I were fishing and poling a 17-foot flats boat in one foot of water, I’d be required to wear a PFD,” Clarke said. “The problem with a blanket ruling on this is that it will require so many exceptions it will be as voluminous as the Federal Tax Code.”
Randy Vance, Editor-in-Chief