New law requires life vests here on the river

Starting this week anyone out on the Chattahoochee River between the North Highlands Dam and the Columbus Trade Center must wear a life vest or "personal flotation device."

It's required by a city ordinance Columbus Council approved Dec. 4. The law takes effect 10 days after the clerk of council signs it, which was Dec. 7.

The law states: "It shall be unlawful for any person to swim, canoe, kayak, raft, jet-ski, or use any other vessel on the Chattahoochee River between the North Highlands Dam and the southern property line of the Columbus Iron Works Convention and Trade Center without wearing a personal flotation device. "

The ordinance has exceptions for sanctioned swimming events, which are closely monitored with rescuers available for emergencies. Tri-athletes typically are not encumbered by bulky gear.

New rules

The city law will be a change from what boaters venturing north of the trade center are accustomed to. Currently Georgia law requires wearing PFDs only for those using jet-skis or other "personal watercraft" and for children age 10 or younger on a boat that's moving.

Older boaters have to wear a PFD only in areas designated "hazardous," like the tail race of a dam.

Now boaters will have to don life vests anytime they venture into the section where Columbus' whitewater rafting course is under construction.

That course required other changes in Columbus' laws, which used to prohibit anyone getting closer than 300 feet to Muscogee County's river dams, including the Eagle & Phenix Dam that was breached to build the whitewater course.

Uptown Columbus Inc., which will manage the course, last week announced that two commercial outfitters will operate here: Whitewater Express of Atlanta and the Nantahala Outdoor Center of Bryson City, N.C.

Outfitters gear up

Rescue crews with the Columbus Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services don't fret over professional outfitters, who require their clients to wear helmets and life vests, and provide safety instruction.

"I've watched their safety briefings, and they were very thorough, so I'm not concerned at all about the outfitters," said Robert Futrell, the deputy Columbus fire chief who trains and commands rescue crews.

He worries people will decide on their own to take to the river without safety gear.

Futrell said he swam the whitewater course right before the fire department started training in swift-water rescue on it: "I and one of the other instructors swam the entire course. And even with life jackets on, in some areas of the water, we were being pulled under for a considerable amount of time. It would be very, very difficult to be in some of those areas without a life jacket and have any chance of survival."

Better buoyancy

According to the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association, the average adult needs an extra 7 to 12 pounds of buoyancy to keep his or her head above water.

The U.S. Coast Guard categorizes PFDs in different types. The manufacturers association cites these minimum buoyancies for each:

22 pounds for Type I, the "offshore life jacket" common on oceangoing vessels. It can keep even an unconscious person face-up in the water.

15.5 pounds for Type II, a near-shore life vest suited to inland water.

15.5 pounds for Type III, the short vest commonly worn by people water-skiing or jet-skiing where rescue would be imminent.

18 pounds for a boat cushion and 16.5 pounds for a "ring buoy," the Type IV PFDs that Georgia law requires every vessel 16 feet or longer to have on board to throw to a distressed swimmer.

15.5 to 22 pounds for Type V, a special-use or hybrid device that has some built-in buoyancy but can be inflated for more.

The river's edge

Of course some Columbus drownings have resulted not from boating or swimming, but from people who couldn't swim wading too far from shore.

No law requires people to wear life vests just because they're at the water's edge, but if they can't swim and want to wade through the shallows, they should take the same precaution, Futrell said.

Rescuers would rather save a distressed swimmer than recover a body:

"Maybe sooner or later somebody will get it through their head that, you know, we've never had to recover anybody that had a PFD on."

Tim Chitwood, tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.com, 706-571-8508.