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Rescuer: ‘We’ve never recovered a body that’s wearing a life jacket’

How to properly secure a life vest

Outside World Columbus manager Henry Jackson uses an Astral Type III Paddle Sports and Sailing vest to demonstrate how to properly secure a personal flotation device
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Outside World Columbus manager Henry Jackson uses an Astral Type III Paddle Sports and Sailing vest to demonstrate how to properly secure a personal flotation device

A weekend drowning on Lake Harding is a grim reminder of a life vest’s value.

A woman who wasn’t wearing one fell out of a canoe and tread water until she went under.

But not all life-vest news has been bad, lately.

In Florida, a 23-month-old girl wearing a life jacket just her size survived in a pocket of air under an overturned boat. Rescuers searched an hour in the dark before finding her scared but unhurt.

As folks head out for the Labor Day weekend, they should remember the risks of going into deep or swift water without the right floatation gear.

Wearing a life vest is the law, in some spots, such as Columbus’ whitewater course, from the North Highlands dam to the southern boundary of the Iron Works, said Robert Futrell, assistant chief of the Columbus Department of Fire & Emergency Medical Services.

The only exception to the rule is sanctioned events such as swim competitions.

“We’re actually going to be looking this weekend,” Futrell said. Authorities also will be checking people out on the lakes, looking for drunk boaters and youngsters without safety vests. Anyone younger than 13 must wear one in a boat under way, Futrell said.

A life jacket has to be functional to pass inspection. It can’t be a rotten piece of frayed orange fabric with foam padding sticking out, nor can it be waterlogged from storage in a flooded footlocker.

Also it has to fit the person wearing it, and has to be fastened tightly so the wearer doesn’t slip out.

Swift water, like the rapids downtown, has the force to strip a vest off you if it’s too big for you or not strapped tightly enough, Futrell said.

Most vests are labeled for age or weight, he said. Children should have vests that turn the wearer face-up, if unconscious, he said.

Any antique canvas vest should be checked for rot. Hit the water in a rotten one, and the padding pops out and floats away, leaving you wearing an empty orange rag.

People also should remember life vests are not meant to keep them afloat indefinitely, Futrell added. They are expected to get to safety – to get back in their watercraft or get to shore.

An old saying among rafting guides is “You have to respect the river.” It is not a hotel swimming pool. Among its dangers are currents and snags and traps, and sometimes overconfidence in one’s swimming prowess. A river can do things Michael Phelps wouldn’t survive, without a life vest.

It’s true the river can kill you in one, too: A tree that falls across the water so its limbs hang down into the current, called a “sweeper” or “strainer,” can trap and submerge you, in a life vest. But it also can do that to you without one.

Futrell has been in water rescue for 35 years, and has recovered a lot of bodies.

“We’ve never recovered a body that’s wearing a life jacket,” he said.

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