PROVIDENCE – With the trout fishing season opening on Wednesday, April 7, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is reminding anglers – particularly those fishing from a boat – to exercise personal safety precautions while in pursuit of their first trout of the season. Anyone going out in a boat, canoe, kayak, or vessel of any kind should wear a life jacket to help ensure they enjoy a safe Opening Day fishing experience.
After a long winter, even on a warm day, water temperatures can linger in the low to mid-50s. According to a U.S. Coast Guard report, a boating accident is five times more likely to be fatal if the water is colder than 60 degrees. The Coast Guard also notes that eight out of 10 boaters who drowned were using vessels less than 21 feet in length. Using small, unstable vessels like canoes and kayaks in water that's deceivingly cold puts anglers in a very dangerous situation. Operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed, and alcohol use rank as the top five primary contributing factors in accidents. U.S. Coast Guard statistics for 2019 also show that:
- Drowning was the reported cause of death in 79% of all boating fatalities.
- Of those who drowned, 86% were not wearing life jackets.
- Kayakers and canoeists accounted for 22% of all deaths reported.
- Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents.
- Where the level of instruction was known, 70% of deaths occurred where the operator did not receive any boating safety instruction.
"Cold water can kill in ways that you might not expect," said Lieutenant Michael Schipritt, boating safety coordinator for DEM's Division of Law Enforcement. "Nearly everyone knows that immersion in cold water can cause hypothermia – the abnormal lowering of the body's core temperature. The effects of a cold-water immersion event, however, can contribute to death well before any drop of body core temperature."
According to the U.S. Coast Guard Safety Division, victims who experience an unexpected fall overboard suffer initial cold-water shock in the first minute, which involuntarily causes them to take a series of big breaths, called hyperventilation. If their head is underwater, they can inhale more than a quart of water and drown immediately. People lucky enough to keep their head above water will continue hyperventilating as their blood pressure jumps. If they can't control their breathing within 60 seconds, they'll suffer numbness, muscle weakness or even fainting, which leads to drowning. A person with heart disease may experience sudden death due to cardiac arrest.
A victim who survives the first minute of cold shock and hyperventilation will progress to the second stage, called "cold incapacitation" or swimming failure. Within about 10 minutes, rapid cooling of the extremities causes muscle stiffening so a person will no longer be able to perform the simplest tasks, such as swimming, holding onto a floating object, or putting on a life jacket. Even yelling for help can be difficult.
Hypothermia is the third stage. There is a common misconception that it sets in almost immediately after a person lands in cold water. However, a victim won't start to become hypothermic for 30 minutes. Severe hypothermia can take an hour or more to set in, depending on the water temperature, body mass, clothing, the amount of struggling, and other factors. A body core temperature of 95 degrees is considered hypothermic, loss of consciousness occurs at about 86 degrees, and death is imminent when the core temperature drops below 82. Unless a person is wearing a life jacket, drowning will occur long before severe hypothermia sets in.
Most boating fatalities are the result of capsizing or falls overboard, not collisions between boats running at high speed. "We see it time and time again in Rhode Island boating accidents," Lt. Schipritt said. "A single boat on a lake or on the bay capsizes and the victim isn't wearing a life jacket, has no warning or time to put one on, and drowns due to the effects of cold water."
Experts recommend that people who end up in the water stay with the boat, even if they cannot get back in. They are more likely to be seen by potential rescuers if they are next to a boat. A person should only swim for shore if wearing a life jacket, if the likelihood of rescue is low, or if they are close to shore and aren't able to climb back into or on top of the boat. "The key is the life jacket," Lt. Schipritt said. "A person who suffers swimming failure or loss of consciousness will stay afloat wearing a life jacket, but will drown without one."
Lt. Schipritt said smart anglers wear a life jacket from the time they enter the boat until they return to shore. "There is no time to put a life jacket on before a boating accident," Schipritt noted. "It would be like trying to buckle your seat belt before a car crash." Today's life jackets are comfortable, stylish, and easy to wear. In fact, they don't even have to be jackets anymore. Old-fashioned, bulky orange jackets have been replaced with innovative options such as inflatable life jackets, allowing mobility and flexibility for activities like boating and fishing.
Boating safety education has helped reduce boating accidents in Rhode Island, and it is the law. In Rhode Island, successful completion of a boating safety course is required for all boaters born after January 1, 1986, who operate a boat with a motor greater than 10 horsepower; and for all operators, regardless of age, of personal watercraft (jet ski). Click here for information on boating safety topics, and here for information about DEM's state-approved online boating safety study course. Contact DEM's Division of Law Enforcement at (401)222-3070 for the home study packet. If you choose the online course or the home study option, you will be required to take our free certification exam.
During the COVID-19 public health emergency, fishing should be enjoyed as a solitary experience or with members of your immediate household, not as a group activity. Check Reopeningri.com and current Executive Orders for current guidance on group sizes for social gatherings. If you arrive at a favorite fishing spot and find that crowds are forming, please leave and choose a different location or return at another time or day. There are many enjoyable fishing locations statewide – try somewhere new. Please note that overnight camping is strictly prohibited at state fishing access areas.
Follow DEM on Twitter (@RhodeIslandDEM) or Facebook at www.facebook.com/RhodeIslandDEM for more information on boating in Rhode Island as well as other timely updates.