Don't Take the Plunge!

Waterfowlers Face Increased Risk of Drowning


Photo © John McGeehan

Imagine it-a relatively calm morning of duck season. You're in your jonboat ready for action. Some handsome mallard drakes swoop in, and you try to get that first shot off. Then it happens-the boat capsizes. You're barely able to remain afloat. Your waders quickly fill with water and drag you down. You can't get them off in time. Your heavy clothing soaks quickly. You figured you were a good enough swimmer and that personal floatation devices (PFDs) would be a hindrance, so you didn't wear one. The water is cold and feels like little daggers stabbing you.

You're too cold to think rationally and you begin to shut down. And because you wanted to keep your great honey hole to yourself, no one knows where you are or knows to look for you. Within 10 to 15 minutes your core temperature begins to drop. Your limbs are numb and useless, and you may lose consciousness before you die. Does it sound too far-fetched to be true? That's what nearly 250 deceased sportsmen and sportswomen probably thought in 2000. Hunters and anglers make up an astonishing 34% of annual boating fatalities. Most of these fatalities occurred on inland waters in boats in less than 16 feet long. The majority of those drowned were not wearing personal flotation devices, or PFDs, also commonly known as life jackets.

Every year more hunters die from drowning and hypothermia than gunshot wounds, according to the US Coast Guard. Many waterfowlers do not consider themselves "boaters" and so do not adhere to many of the cautions recommended for boaters. DU wants its members to know their boats, their equipment, the weather, and themselves.

The Boat U.S. Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water pulled together a group of representatives from the outdoor sports arena, including Ducks Unlimited, known collectively as the Sportsman's Forum. Funded by a grant from the US Coast Guard, the goal of the Sportsman's Forum is to share safety information with hunters and fishermen. DU and the rest of the Sportsman's Forum is participating in Operation BoatSmart, a program designed to make outdoorsmen and women more aware of boating dangers and safety precautions.

Drowning and hypothermia are very real risks for waterfowlers. Cold air/wind chill, wind, water, precipitation, and fatigue make hunters a high-risk demographic. Waterfowling gear, such as waders and bulky clothing, hinder swimming and buoyancy. Many waterfowlers are under the false impression that PFDs, or personal floatation devices, only hinder swimming. "Statistics show that 88 percent of the people who drown are not wearing life jackets," says Charlie Kearns, product development director for Stearns, Inc., of St. Cloud, Minnesota, a respected name in the personal flotation device industry. "I think the key to it is to encourage people to find a life jacket that they will wear."

"When looking for a life jacket, pick out one that you will wear that is appropriate for the conditions you may be hunting in," Kearns advises waterfowlers. "There are various styles out there. One is a vest, with no foam at the shoulders at all, just mesh. They are nice for duck hunters because they can put their gun up and shoot and not be inhibited by foam that you have with a conventional life jacket."

Be here for next season by following some simple steps: make sure everyone on board is wearing a personal flotation device; do not drink alcohol before or while operating the boat; make sure weather conditions are safe before setting out; do not overload your watercraft with people, gear, and dogs; keep an eye out for other boats; and take along a cell phone or radio in case you need to call for help. If you want to sharpen up your boating skills, a free, on-line safety course is available at It could save your life. For more information on Stearns personal flotation devices, visit the company's Web site at