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Lifejackets a must because boats can be replaced, ‘lives can’t be replaced’

By Gene Pereira, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

With the sunny, hot days having arrived and this long weekend unofficially kicking off another boating season, Markham and Stouffville residents are anxiously taking to the water for another relaxing summer of riding the waves.

While getting out on the boat is a nice, relaxing way for a family to spend some time together, making sure you have everything you need to keep your family safe is primarily at the top of the list before heading out.

Right at the top of those must dos is making sure you not only have lifejackets for everyone on the boat, but making sure they are in proper working condition.

“Especially if it’s a family,” said Aidan, a sales consultant in the boating section of Bass Pro Shops in Vaughan, who requested his last name not be used. “Lifejackets are at the top of what you need. Everything else can come after.”

With Safety Boating Awareness Week (May 18-24) upon us, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) are reminding boaters and paddlers that safety comes first and that means sporting a proper fitting lifejacket every time you head out on the water.

The OPP is looking to avoid a repeat of 2023 when there were 23 marine fatality victims in the province, the majority who were found not wearing a lifejacket.

Unfortunately, the boating year started tragically when three people died and another five were injured when two boats collided near Kingston on Saturday (May 18).

“For 21 of the 23 people who lost their lives in boating/paddling incidents in 2023, their vessel either capsized or they fell overboard,” said the OPP, in findings from its own data. “Seventeen of those who died were not wearing a lifejacket.

“Surviving these types of incidents usually comes down to whether or not you choose to wear a lifejacket which, when properly worn, will keep you afloat the entire time you are in the water.”

Around half of the marine fatalities from capsizing or falling overboard without a life jacket involved kayaks, canoes, and other non-motorized vessels.

A large number of these OPP-investigated deaths could have been prevented had the boater/paddler been wearing a lifejacket.

“The OPP is reminding boaters and paddlers that the only enjoyable day on the water is the one that is safe, and the only lifejacket that can save your life is the one that you’re wearing,” added the OPP, who also listed alcohol/drug use and collisions with other vessels or fixed objects as other main contributing factors in marine deaths on OPP-patrolled waterways.

Statistics show that more than 80 per cent of those who drown while boating were not wearing a lifejacket or not wearing it properly, according to the Safe Boating Council.

Before even heading out on the water, boaters and paddlers should first ensure their lifejacket is in safe, working order.

“Especially when you have the inflatables,” said Aidan. “A lot of the time, you want to make sure you check the CO2 cartridges because they can expire, and you want to make sure everything is all good.”

As well, you should be making sure they fit whoever is going to use them properly.

“You want it to be where it’s not too loose,” added the Bass Pro shop consultant. “You don’t want it to be strangling them, but you obviously want it to be a tight fit, where if something happens and you get thrown in the water it doesn’t pull up over your neck.

“You have a lot in different (price) ranges. We have a $40 traditional basic lifejacket, and even those will be perfect for anyone.”

Prices can range higher for example, about an additional $20 or a bit more, for those that want a fishing jacket with pockets, or to purchase an inflatable, which “is a little bit less in your way if you’re out for a long time.

“It’s something that is pretty affordable to everyone,” said Aidan.

Whether purchasing a new lifejacket or a used one, it’s also important to look for other things besides fit.

“You want to make sure it’s in good condition,” said Aidan. “If you’re buying it from a store, generally you’ll be OK with that. Anything that can tighten and strap together. There are older life jackets that really don’t have clips or any straps that will allow you to tighten them or clip them, so it’s a little bit loose around you.

“A lot of the newer ones, it’s pretty important to have to be able to clip them so it will (work) no matter what happens. If you’re knocked around, it will stay tight to your body. It won’t come off you.”

As for how often you should replace your lifejacket, Aidan says it’s not something you should need to replace every year. If you use an inflatable, make sure the canisters are updated inside them.

“Just in general for lifejackets, every five to 10 years is OK as long as you keep it in good condition,” he said. “If you leave them in a basement and don’t touch them, they might not be in great condition, or you use them every day of the summer then you might have to upgrade them sooner.

“It’s less about the time and more about how you treat them and if you keep them in good condition.”

York Regional Police were out on the waters of Lake Simcoe this long weekend, focusing their enforcement on boaters who feel it’s acceptable to consume alcohol while operating a boat.

New signs have been posted on regional road bridges asking people to call 9-1-1 if they suspect someone is operating a boat while impaired.

The YRP’s Marine Unit, in conjunction with South Simcoe Police, will be conducting vehicle checks throughout the summer.

“Having everything is definitely important,” said Aidan. “You need to make sure you have your flares, you have your lifejacket, you have your rope. Everything comes together and it’s important, but at the end of the day the lifejacket is something that protects you, while the other things are a lot of stuff that will protect your boat.

“It (lifejacket) really is the No. 1 thing in safety because boats can be replaced, but lives can’t be replaced.”

Safe Boating Awareness Week is an annual, national campaign spearheaded by the Canadian Safe Boating Council. Boaters and paddlers are encouraged to raise their awareness about every aspect of safe travelling on waterways.

For more on Safe Boating Awareness Week, see here (https://csbc.ca/en/safe-boating-awareness-week).

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