Statistics from the United States Coast Guard are both disturbing and encouraging. Recent reports show paddlesports deaths are up. At the same time, the percentage of paddlers wearing life jackets is also growing. To get to the bottom of the numbers, we tracked down the source of the statistics.
Our first stop was Jim Emmons from the Water Sports Foundation. “Some people attribute a portion of the increase in paddler deaths to the impressive participation growth.” He points to the most recent Outdoor Foundation survey showing a 24.7 percent gain in paddlers in 2016. Emmons explains more anglers on the water will lead to more accidents.
The Coast Guard report breaks down the numbers. Of the 489 kayaker deaths between 2006 and 2015, 75 percent of victims were not wearing life jackets. Sadly, 45 percent of paddlers had less than 10 hours experience.
“The data shows as experience increases, chances of accident decrease,” Emmons points out. Not surprisingly, the majority of paddler deaths also occurred in rough weather.
What is surprising is the recent increase in safety awareness. According to a National Life Jacket Observation Study, more paddlers are safety conscious. From 1999 to 2017, a research firm conducted site surveys of paddlers. First, they found users were more likely to wear a life jacket if the water and weather conditions were risky. Lead researcher, Tom Mangione says, “Paddlers conduct a mental assessment of risk to determine whether to wear a life jacket.” The survey also found numbers were up in a dozen safety-related questions including 16.5 percent increase in users aware of state and federal life vest regulations.
The increase in deaths and increase in safety awareness are connected. The Coast Guard responded to the rise in fatalities by awarding $813,000 to nonprofit programs promoting paddler safety, a 15 percent increase.
The money was poured into campaigns to put more people in PFDs. The results are encouraging. Emmons says, “The study’s highlighted results show a positive culture shift towards safer boating behavior as measured by attitudes, opinions and behaviors.”
Kayak anglers don’t need a course in statistics to know PFD attitudes are changing. Over the short and meteoric history of modern kayak fishing, we’ve seen more anglers wearing life jackets on the water and on social media.
In addition to the hard work by non-profits and government agencies, paddlers have been the biggest contributor to public safety. Chad Hoover, director of Kayak Bass Fishing, is emphatic about his support for the cause. “I was a hardcore life jacket advocate from the start,” Hoover says. His resolve was planted years before he took up kayak fishing. As a U.S. Navy Surface Search and Rescue Swimmer, Hoover says, “I did as much search and recovery as search and rescue.”
Seeing the sad consequences of unsafe behavior, and being surrounded by risk aversion, Hoover has been on a campaign for life jackets. He insists tournament anglers wear a PFD and refuses to post or promote photos of anglers without safety equipment. He laughs when he recalls one of his own gaffs. “I posted a photo of a bass so big I couldn’t see the angler wasn’t wearing a PFD.” In seconds, Hoover’s feed lit up with fans calling him out. “Make something taboo and people will police themselves,” he says.
Other big-name anglers like Kayak Fishing Show’s Jim Sammons and Hooked On Wild Water’s host Drew Gregory are banging the drum. Kayak Angler magazine and other publications have instituted a PFD only photo policy.
Safety awareness starts in the kayak shop. One disturbing number from the government reports is more anglers are purchasing kayaks at big box retailers. Emmons explains the concern, “New paddlers may not get expert advice on safety before they leave the store.” Industry leaders are worried the new wave of box-store boats will further increase risk factors.
“For a life jacket to save your life, you have to wear it.”
Brian Vincent, manager at Appomattox River Company, admits the troubling increase in paddler deaths has his attention. “It has taken longer for anglers to catch on with PFDs, but it seems like they are finally getting on board.” Vincent looks at the life jacket as part of the kayak fishing kit, not just a safety item. He credits efforts to educate anglers for increasing safety awareness. “I tell everyone to stack the odds in their favor.”
Improved life jacket design has also contributed to angler compliance. Ryan Lightbody, product manager at Stohlquist, points to better fit and cooler looks as the biggest improvements to life jacket design. Recently, Stohlquist has released gender- and age-specific fishing vests. All the messaging will fall on deaf ears if a life jacket is ill-fitting or uncomfortable. Lightbody says, “For a life jacket to save your life, you have to wear it.”
It doesn’t work unless you wear it. | Photo: Courtesy Stohlquist