How can you drown if you’re wearing a life jacket?
Easily, according to experts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard.
After a drowning victim wearing a life jacket was found floating face down in Canyon Lake earlier this month residents took to social media to express their bewilderment that such a thing could happen.
Investigators with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department are investigating the incident, so official details are not available.
But the quick answer to why life jackets don’t prevent drownings is that most aren’t designed to keep or turn unconscious victims floating face up, according to USACE Natural Resource Specialist Ali Battaglia, temporarily assigned to the Corps’ Canyon Lake office.
Many of those who drown despite wearing life jackets may have sustained some sort of injury or impairment severe enough to prevent them from keeping their face out of the water or prevent so-called mouth immersions that restrict a victim’s airways over time.
Many drowning victims get splashed in the face by the wake of other boats and by waves. Battaglia said mouth immersions are a danger to anyone in the water at Canyon Lake.
“Those wake boats throw very large waves,” Battaglia said.
Mornings are calm but by midday the lake is crammed. Rescuers sometimes can’t reach victims fast enough and getting onto the lake from the shore is difficult.
Statistics show drowning is the leading cause of death in recreational boating accidents said Kim Pickens, U. S. Coast Guard Reserve Operation BoatSmart Project Officer. They account for more than 70% of boating deaths.
Battaglia said 20% of drowning victims are kayakers and paddlers recreating alone in remote areas.
“They simply drown for being entrapped under the water,” she said.
USACE’s five golden rules for water safety are:
- Expect the unexpected. “Anything can happen,” especially to boaters who don’t don life jackets. It can take upwards of 10 minutes to locate a life jacket and get it on.
- Wear a life jacket! Adults can drown in as little as 60 seconds. There are life jackets for kids and life jackets for grownups. They come in four different weights and should fit snugly but not go over necks. “I see a lot of ill-fitting life jackets,” Battaglia said.
- Know your swimming abilities. Swimming in Canyon Lake is not like swimming in a pool. “You can’t just touch the bottom or go to the edge.” There also are hidden dangers including falling rocks, a strong current and waves. Wear the right life jacket for your swimming skills. Different life jackets offer different degrees of flotation. Some fit around the torso and some go all the way around a neck. “Those are going to be best for safety in the water.”
- Don’t use alcohol or any mind-altering substance.
- Be aware of’boater hypnosis, which sometimes happens to recreationalists who spend a lot of time out on the water where sun, heat exhaustion, wind, noise, vibration, and movement can be disorienting and slow reaction times. “It’s going to tire you out and if you’re unexpectedly thrown into the water, you might be tired and unable to stay afloat,” Battaglia said.
She warns that even a designated swim beach can be dangerous. Swimmers should stay away from unsafe areas such as Overlook Park with the rocks and tough terrain to and from the area.
“A lot of people get a false sense of security and it only takes a few seconds to drown,” Battaglia said. Kids splash each other, causing them to suck in water. They also like to push each other under.
Parents on shore can’t get to their children fast enough when something bad happens.
Comal Park, where a woman almost drowned in June, has a very steep drop-off into the lake.
Recreationalists can borrow life jackets at both parks.
To learn more about life jackets click on these links:
* USACE’s explanation of how to choose the right life jacket. https://uscgboating.org/images/howtochoosetherightlifejacket_brochure.pdf
* U.S. Coast Guard’s website for life jackets. https://uscgboating.org/recreational-boaters/life-jacket-wear-wearing-your-life-jacket.php
* U.S. Coast Guard Guide for drownings involving life jackets. https://www.usps.org/eddept/files/other_20_handout.pdf