It's Up To You

I support sensible life-jacket laws, but how about some personal responsibility too?

Life jackets, camo, USCG, Coast Guard
"As of today, you can buy a life jacket in a variety of colors, even camouflage."iStock: alexavich

As I write this, america is in the throes of a presidential election. If the various candidates need to polarize their audiences even further, I have a single piece of gear that will do it: life jackets.

Now, uttering “life jackets” might not have quite the same effect on landlubbers, but I guarantee it will get every yacht owner and boat skipper to pop up and look like a meerkat scanning the landscape for predators. The topic of life jackets has been bandied about and legislated ad infinitum.

Following a recent tragedy in which two young boaters disappeared off Florida after taking a center console offshore into an approaching storm, reactions by legislators were strong and swift, with knee-jerk bills that would add to our existing legislative burden. One politician proposed that everyone under 21 be required to wear a life jacket whenever in a boat. Current state age laws on wearing life jackets, which supersede federal laws, are already eclectic. For example, in Florida anyone under the age of 6 must wear one while underway, while states without life-jacket laws default to the Coast Guard interim rule requiring children 13 and younger to wear them. I'm all for appropriate safety rules, but this needs to be tempered with personal responsibility too.

Having gone overboard twice, I’m all for wearing life jackets. When I deem conditions iffy, I’m the first guy in mine. But being told by some legislator (who once saw an ocean) that I need to wear one erodes my personal responsibility.

One Florida legislator even proposed that nobody younger than 16 years old could use a boat without an adult on board, which would effectively eliminate countless kids safely sailing and learning the pastime on myriad waterways in Optimist prams.

That being said, I do have a suggestion about life-jacket regulations. Life jackets must go through extensive testing, and they’re rated for particular sizes and the like, but there are currently no parameters for color. Now that’s a proposal I could fully support.

In ranking the important features of a life jacket, I think color is a close second behind flotation rating. But, as of today, you can buy a life jacket in a variety of colors, even camouflage. That’s fine, but a “pine foliage” life jacket will be nearly invisible in the open sea. Personally, I want my life jacket to have neon colors. A siren. And flashing lights.

I want those guys on the boat that I just fell off to say: “Hey, look! There’s Caswell!” And I want them to spot me in about three seconds. And then never lose sight of me.

All Coasties are required to wear life jackets in “international orange” while aboard their vessels. And while you’re welcome to buy your life jackets in black, dark blue or even woodland meadow, I’d suggest that you take a page from the USCG playbook.

But I will defend your choice of a puce-tone life jacket to match your boat’s puce-tone upholstery because, after all, that’s why they call it personal responsibility.