The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

Boating safety is her passion


Heidi Zemach | For The LOG

Sue Lang, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary's vice commander discusses recreational boating safety issues at her Lowell Point home's kitchen table.

Sue Lang will talk anybody's ear off about boating safety. It's her passion. Lang is the vice commander of the Seward Flotilla with the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and state chair of National Safe Boating Week She conducts free vessel inspections, teaches boating safety classes, shops around garage sales and social media sites looking for used life jackets. She doesn't know how many lives she may have saved over the years, but she firmly believes that her message does save lives.

Sitting at her kitchen table at Cottage by the Bay at Lowell Point shoreline, Lang can't resist lifting up her binoculars to watch two vessels in the distance to see if they safely pass one another. She recently witnessed a parasail nearly collide with a sailboat, and is still steamed over it. The watercraft with the right of way was the parasailor, the one at the greater mercy of the elements, she said.

Lang is amazed by how many different types and sizes of vessels are on Resurrection Bay these days. There are more kayakers than ever, there are paragliders and paddle boarders, travelling alongside sailboats and motorized vessels of all sizes – fishing charter boats, tour boats, freight ships and cruise ships.

As a rule, the larger vessels are more safety conscious than the smaller, more vulnerable ones as there are more people on board, and the captain's job and the company's reputation are on the line, Lang said. "I've seen some recreational boats play chicken with the tour boats," she added. "They're idiots. They don't realize there are laws out there."

Actually, more Alaskans die in recreational boating accidents than die commercial fishing. One of the greatest contributing factors is alcohol use, the second is inattention. Nine of 10 people who die recreational boating are adult males, especially men not wearing life jackets who fall overboard and hit their heads on the way into the water, Lang said. Many of them could have survived had they been wearing a life jacket.

Another common factor is the size and type of vessel. Nine of every 10 deaths involve boats under 26 feet in length, and three of every four vessels involved in recreational accidents are power boats.

But Lang is heartened because statistics demonstrate that more boaters in Alaska are becoming safety conscious.

"The good news is that fatalities are dropping," she said. Last year, recreational boating accidents and deaths in Alaska were the lowest since 2009, according to a new report from the U.S. Coast Guard. Ten people died in seven Alaska recreational boating accidents in 2013, and 12 were injured according to the Coast Guard's annual Recreational Boating Statistics Report. That's considerably lower than the 22 deaths statewide recorded in the previous year.

The Alaska Boating Safety Program works closely with the Seward Coast Guard Auxiliary to increase the use of life jackets in Alaska, particularly among adult males. Its media campaign encourages men to promise their loved ones they will always wear a life jacket while out fishing or boating. Other important safety tips for boaters are to carry communication and signaling devices on them, to equip their boat with at least one reboarding device, to always complete a thorough pre-departure check before each trip, to file a float plan, and take boating safety courses to keep current.

Ten or 11 different local, state and federal agencies with the power to ticket boaters for potential safety and other boating violations are observing Seward's docks and area waterways, Lang said. They may ticket folks for not having their children wear life jackets on the docks, or for creating a wake in the small boat harbor. A DUI issued to a boater is as serious an offense as one issued for driving a car under the influence.

One of the most successful programs, the Kids Don't Float program, provides free loaner life jackets of all sizes near the entrances to most common boating areas. More than 800 of these help-yourself life jacket stations are available throughout Alaska. Locally there are five stations in the Seward Small Boat Harbor, one at Miller's Landing, one at Bear Lake, one at Primrose Campground, and one at the lake in Moose Pass.

Heidi Zemach | For The LOG

The Kids Don't Float program makes life jackets available to children at 800 help-yourself loaner stands in Alaska. This one is at Seward Small Boat harbor. Others in the area are at Miller's Landing, Bear Lake, Primrose Campground and at the lake in Moose Pass.

"There's no excuse not to wear life jackets," Lang said. You don't have to buy one, you can just go borrow one and bring it back at the end of your trip, so I don't buy that excuse anymore." Most on the market have sufficient floatation to save the average person. A person who weighs 200 pounds or less only needs 15-18 pounds of additional flotation because three quarters of their body weight is water, and there's usually a decent percentage of fat too, which floats.

But they do differ in terms of personal comfort, and how they work. When Lang took the Seward Polar Plunge for the first time she wore a type 3 life-jacket. She hit the water hard and sank straight down, seemingly swallowing half of Resurrection Bay before being shot up to the surface like a cork out of a champagne bottle. Disoriented, she floundered around before remembering that she should lie on her back to enable the divers to grab hold and pull her in. The next Polar Plunge, she wore an inflatable-style life jacket. It stopped her as soon as she hit the water, and did not even get her hair wet.


Reader Comments

Jamie writes:

Great article!


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