Coast Guard stresses safety precautions for spring boaters

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PORTLAND — With temperatures finally hovering above freezing, boat owners are probably starting to think about getting their sailboats, kayaks and fishing vessels seaworthy.

U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Brian Downey Jr. said he remembers all too well the day last May when two young women decided to take advantage of balmy weather and kayak to Ram Island from Peaks Island.

“They had done a lot of things right,” Downey said, referring to the safety precautions the women took, including their use of life vests. But the water was 47 degrees that day.

The women, 18 and 20, were wearing street clothes for the two-mile round trip. After they failed to arrive on Peaks rescuers searched overnight. The women were found in the water, separated from their kayaks and paddles, without vital signs and were pronounced dead at Maine Medical Center.

Downey said the incident encouraged him to reach out this year to the public to provide information about safety on the water, especially in the spring.

Life jackets should always be worn on the water, he said, even by strong swimmers. In Maine ,the water remains in the 40s through May, and it doesn’t get any warmer than the 60s even at the peak of summer.

An average person can last about six hours in 60-degree water, and after that about 10 hours more in the water in what Downey called “survival” mode.

Drowning, he said, is often facilitated by the body’s hypothermic reaction, which impacts the ability to swim.

“We’re emphasizing that in cold water, you want to wear a life jacket because it keeps you buoyant,” the 20-year Coast Guard officer explained.

In New England, he said, there is never a time of year when cold water isn’t a threat.

The Coast Guard’s Northern New England Sector in South Portland responded to 90 calls last spring (May 1 to June 30). There were nearly 700 total search-and-rescue calls in 2010, and there were 10 fatalities.

In addition to life vests, kayakers and boaters should equip themselves with a means of communication, either a VHF radio or a cellphone, Downey said.

Most boats are equipped with VHF radios, he said, and hand-held VHF radios are sold at marine stores. Boaters should use Channel 16 if they are in distress, and people in trouble on the water who have a cellphone should call 911 or 767-0303 to reach the Coast Guard in an emergency.

Coast Guard members wear dry suits, which are full-body suits that keep the water out, and Downey said those are an option for kayakers.

“Kayakers present a unique challenge because they don’t have the same safety equipment on board,” Downey said. “They are also more apt to get wet.”

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or