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Most fatal drownings occur in the absence of life preservers

The U.S. Coast Guard says in 2019, 86% of">drowning victims in fatal boating accidents were not wearing a life jacket.  The percentage is even higher around the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes Surf Project reports that 99% of drowning victims in the Great Lakes between 2010 and 2018 did not have a personal floatation device.


David Benjamin, executive director of public relations and project management for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue project, compares the importance of wearing a life jacket with wearing a seatbelt.


“If there's a boating accident, you wouldn't be able to put your life jacket on when everything is going wrong," Benjamin said. "It's also very difficult to try to put a life jacket on once you're in the water and if there's a boat accident and you get thrown from the boat, you may be separated from the life jacket. So again, you must have a lifejacket on.”


Benjamin said where drowning is concerned, swimming ability doesn’t matter, it’s your ability to float that’s important.


The Coast Guard requires all vessels to have at least one personal floatation device for each person on board.

Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich said most of the boating citations written by his department are to boaters without life preservers, particularly in kayaks and canoes.

“We have pretty close to a zero tolerance policy for those," Borkovich said.We just don't find a lot of gray area there. If you don't have a life preserver with you, then you're one of the reasons that we're always going on body recoveries and you know, drownings and other types of rescues. So we're pretty tight on those rules.”

The Coast Guard said canoes and kayaks rank fourth among vessels with the highest casualty numbers. In 2019 they accounted for 125 deaths.

“Last year we either recovered or towed in or helped out or searched for 49 boats which were occupied by 51 people," Borkovich said. "And of course, that's a pretty big number and that tells you that it's pretty much people who are alone in boats or in trouble, which are your canoes and your kayaks.”
Borkovich said during his 45 years on the job he has seen too many drownings that could have been avoided if they had life preservers.


Courtney produced this story as part of the Michigan News Group internship. A collaboration between WCMU and eight community newspapers. You can read the print version of this story in this week’s edition of the Leelanau Enterprise.