Boat Safety / July 13, 2021

Drowning prevention when boating

As the weather is warming up and many families are pulling the boats to the lakes, rivers and oceans, we want to remind everyone of drowning prevention when boating strategies. It with sadness that we read about the many drowning deaths that have occurred across Canada in 2021. According to CBC, there have been 34 drowning deaths in the Great Lakes in 2021.

Water related fatalities most frequently occurred in July. It is very timely to review drowning prevention techniques as Canada recognizes July 5th as National Injury Prevention Day and the UN World Drowning Prevention Day – declared in April 2021 by General Assembly resolution A/RES/75/273,- is held annually on 25th of July.Although, drowning can occur in any body of water over a few inches, drowning while boating happens all too often and can be preventable.

First things first, learn to swim

If you are a boater we recommend that you and all family members who will be on the boat learn how to swim.  Although, many drowning victims know how to swim, survival is greater for those who have some ability to swim and have some level of life saving skills. techniques.  This can involve learning how to tread water, survive a fall into water fully clothed and in early days it was drown proofing techniques, but according to Dave Benjamin, executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, “If you’re in an unsafe situation on the water, first flip onto your back, then float to keep your head above water, calm down and conserve energy, and follow a safe path out of the water.”

When boating always wear a life jacket

Canadian laws require that recreational boats have one properly fitting life jacket (or PFD) for each person on the boat, but there is no law requiring people to wear the lifejackets. There is a strong lobby to enact law for all children under the age of 16 to wear a life jacket on small vessels.

After losing her 11 year-old son Josh to drowning on September 1, 2018, while on a short boat trip, Cara McNulty started Life Jackets for Life, an initiative to change the law in Canada to require children to wear a life jacket while on small vessels. With a few small changes, drownings could be abated. According to the Canadian Drowning Prevention Coalition, gaps have been identified in Canadian legislation and regulation in the Canadian Drowning Prevention Plan, 8th ed. specifically, “Small vessel regulations need to be amended to require that all children (0-18 years of age) wear a properly fitting, approved, floatation device or lifejacket while on or in a boat of any size for any purpose.”(13).

A petition was Presented to the House of Commons May 13, 2020 (Petition No. 431-00186 and the Government response was tabled July 20, 2020. But it is never too late to write your MP to encourage them to support the petition.

What is the difference between a lifejacket and a personal flotation device?

  • A lifejacket holds the person wearing it upright. It can turn the person over from face down to face up.
  • A personal flotation device (PFD) will keep a person floating, but not necessarily face up. A PFD is lighter and less bulky than a lifejacket. PFDs keep people warmer in the water because the foam in the vest is evenly distributed around the body.
  • Choose the best option for the person. Lifejackets are better for smaller children.
  • Always choose a properly fitted lifejacket or PDF
  • Everyone should always wear lifejackets when riding in a boat. Eight out of 10 boaters who drown in Canada were not wearing life jackets when they drowned.

“By being involved with the Canadian Drowning Prevention Coalition, Steering Committee, and a Pleasure Craft Marine Insurance professional, I have an obligation to inform and educate (boaters/clients/people) by creating awareness for boating safely and drowning prevention. We all know that wearing seat belts in motor vehicles, and wearing helmets when cycling, will significantly reduce the number of fatalities in an accident – I firmly believe the same is true of wearing a properly fitted life jacket or PFD while on a boat, it is a simple solution to reduce fatal and non-fatal drownings.”  MaryKate Townsend, Manager Pacific Marine Underwriting Managers.

Have a buddy and know the safety rules of the boat

Boating is a fun activity and usually we have family and friends going along for the ride, the tube thrills, the jet ski jumps, the water skiing waves or the calm paddle board. But in the fun it is easy to lose track of who is doing what. So always have a buddy system when boating. Keep each other accountable for safety protocols, wearing life jackets and knowing how to abandon a boat safely in case of fire or capsize. The captain of the boat – no matter the size – should always give a safety talk before departing the marina. This should include:

  • Making sure each life jacket fits correctly.
  • Cold water is deadlier than you think. Prepare for the shock of cold water –
    and always wear a life jacket.
  • Assigning buddies.
  • Guests know where the bailer and safety equipment is stored.
  • How to anchor the boat.
  • Knowing how to evacuate the boat correctly.
  • How to call for help should the captain become incapacitated.
  • Rules of the boat such as stay seated when in motion. You can easily fall out of a small powerboat.
  • Forbid any passengers to bow ride. This is incredibly dangerous.

Learn CPR

Often people do not recognize when a person is drowning, the signs can be subtle and silent. It is key to be able to resuscitate a person in a near drowning. A study published in the June 2017 edition of the journal Resuscitation, which found that chances for neurological recovery from a near-drowning increase when the victim receives CPR from a bystander. Knowing how to do mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing, is critical because people underwater die because of lack of oxygen.

Another fact that many people do not know, is that a person can die as long as 24 hours after a near drowning, as the lungs can refill with water. If you have had a near drowning it is important to ensure medical observation for the next 24 hours after the incident.

Check the weather forecast

It is one thing to check the temperature, but what is more important when going out on a boat trip is to look at the wind forecast and the longer range weather forecast for any upcoming weather warnings. It may be calm and sunny when you depart, but if you are planning a longer boating journey in time or distance, you will need to know the future forecast. Also look at the charts to determine any local hazards – shallow waterways, sandbars or rapids. Drownings on boats often happen when there is severe weather changes or a boat capsizes when a boat hits underwater debris and passengers get ejected or the boat takes on water and starts to sink.

When boating the best thing is to have a safety checklist:

  • Tell someone where you’re going and when to expect you back.
  • Pack maps and charts.
  • Do safety equipment check: required items as well as additional such as first aid kits, tools and spare parts.
  • Make sure cell phone is well charged and you have a back up charger.
  • If you frequently boat out of cell range, consider a VHF radio or a satellite phone.
  • Compass in case of failure of electronics.

Boat sober
On average 36% of those who drowned while boating, had alcohol in their system.
Drinking and boating, is the same as drinking and driving a car – it’s illegal AND dangerous.
Encourage guests to boat sober. Not only is the captain responsible, each individual should be sober while out on a boat.

With so many lakes and rivers and oceans, Canadians are avid boaters. Powerboats, fishing boats, pontoons, cruisers, sailboats and houseboats – there are so many ways to enjoy the water. But when approximately 26% of drownings each year occur during boating activities, it’s important to know the key things that keep you safe. Be a part of reducing drowning incidents in Canada.


  • Unintentional injury is the number one cause of death of Canadians ages 1 to 34.
  • Injury costs the Canadian economy $29.4 billion a year.
  • Approximately 64% of all drowning deaths occur from May to September.
  • 66% of all drowning victims are good, strong, confident swimmers.
  • Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death in the county and sadly many of those who did drown never intended to go into the water and were often found within 15 metres of safety.
  • On average, 87% of boaters who drown in Canada were not wearing life jackets

Photo by Mael BALLAND on Unsplash 


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