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Mandatory PFDs???

By Don Mueggenborg

(This is my position and not a position of the Illinois Paddlling Council.)

A little controversy – anyone want to contact the editor with a rebuttal?

A recent email I received stated that the Coast Guard was considering a law making it necessary for boat operators to wear a PFD at all times. Their statistics showed that wearing a PFD saves lives. (I cannot argue with that.)

As I paddled the Lower DesPlaines in 95 degree weather, my paddling hitting bottom on every stroke, I wondered what reasons I could give to show that one size does not fit all. That mandatory, meaning all the time, in all conditions, is a bad idea.

Then I realized that I had the answer, my paddle was hitting bottom – the water was so shallow that if I were to tip, I could reach down with one hand and right myself. If I fell in, I wouldn’t get my ankles wet. The river isn’t even one hundred yards across so I could get to the bank.

I can see no reason to be wearing a PFD at that time. (Yes, I know rivers have holes that are deep.)

Then I began to wonder where we could find the answers to the questions that arose in my mind. I began to question the statistics.

  • How many paddlers died on rivers in Illinois?
  • Where did the accidents occur?
  • How many of these would not have died if they were wearing a PFD.
  • (If you are hit by a motor boat speeding 30 mph, your chances are pretty slim whether you have a PFD on or not).
  • How many of these involve alcohol or drugs?

Most statistics lump all watercraft accidents together – not separating the paddlesport craft.

You can see where I stand on mandatory wearing of PFDs. One size does not fit all!

I respect those who feel that everyone should wear a PFD at all times when on the water in a canoe or kayak. If you feel better wearing a PFD, by all means wear it.

There certainly are times when a PFD should be worn.

  1. If you cannot swim (or have not swam for such a long time that you don’t know if you can still swim)
  2. When the weather or water is too cold. (I wear a PFD in the early spring and late fall even in shallow water.)
  3. When it is windy, when you are in high, fast water (flood stage), in rapids
  4. When you are on a large body of water – very wide river or a lake (the wind will blow the canoe away from you – can you get to shore by yourself?)
  5. When there are power boats that cause problems because they are unaware of the wakes they leave and the nature of a canoe or kayak
  6. When the trip leader, Race or Event sponsor says you have to

Statistics (not scientific numbers, sorry)

The Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon – a citizen race with most of the paddlers not people who race more than 1 or 2 races a year and race with cruising boats.

The race has been going on for over 57 years (some years we required wearing PFDs, so let’s cut it down to 50 years) – average 500 boats a year over that time – 25,000 paddlers – no incidents.

The USCA and Paddlesport insure races all over North America – in the 20 or 30 years they have been insuring paddlers – no incidents.

We might be better off making sure our PFDs work and that we can still swim, if we haven’t been swimming in a while.

My side of the argument – this is what I would present if a bill ever comes up. Any comments?

Feel free to send thoughts to the IPC newsletter editor at news@illinoispaddling.org.


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