20 killed in Alaska boating accidents in 2017

Four people in the Kenai Peninsula area and 20 people total died in boating accidents in Alaska in 2017, an increase from the 16 people who died in 2016 and seven who died in 2015, according to the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation’s Office of Boating Safety.

Two of the Kenai area deaths were due to a boat capsizing on Resurrection Bay; one was caused when a boater was unable to reboard a vessel on Johnson Lake and another was caused by a possible ejection from a boat on the Kenai River, Alaska’s boating law administrator Jeffrey S. Johnson said.

While the types of fatal accident varied, nearly all boating deaths have on one thing in common — missing life jackets.

Life jackets can make a critical difference in the first moments someone goes overboard, when cold water — defined as less than 70 degrees — sends bodies into shock. The resulting panic, vertigo and hyperventilation can cause drowning, Johnson said.

In Alaska ocean temperatures hover around 40 or 50 degrees, well below the cold water threshold.

“There is no place in Alaska where you can claim there is warm water,” Johnson said.

Boaters should treat all water in Alaska as if it’s cold just like you that all bears that they’re not friendly, he said.

If a person survives the initial shock and disorientation of being submerged in cold water, numbness, loss of muscle strength and dexterity soon follow. This can hamper even strong swimmers and make staying afloat challenging.

A life jacket buys time.

“When you have a life jacket on, you can still maintain airway. You’re not spending all time keeping yourselves from drowning. You can focus on getting to shore, helping someone or grabbing a radio,” he said.

Although life jackets aren’t a guarantee for people stranded in water, the increase the likelihood of survival by 50 percent, Johnson said.

He recommends that anyone going out on the water wear a life jacket, and bring a communication device such as a radio or plastic-wrapped cell phone.

The Alaska Boating Safety Program offers a free safety course, Alaska Water Wise, to educate boaters about safety basics. The course includes education on pre-departure preparation, boat operation, boating emergencies, cold-water survival, the navigation rules, and boating laws, and has been approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA).

Reach Erin Thompson at ethompson@peninsulaclarion.com

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