For us at Fish’n Canada, our hearts sink in our chests whenever we read about a death on the water (like the CBC story we shared just earlier today about young Joshua Steinburg—just eleven-years-old when he tragically lost his life). As parents and grandparents, it’s difficult to imagine the pain of such a loss. Especially when it happens in the great outdoors. This is where we go to escape our worries, our grief, our humdrum office lives. For us, the outdoors is like a place of worship; it isn’t the place where unthinkable tragedy occurs. And it’s especially heartbreaking when the tragedy is preventable.
The unfortunate reality is that our place of worship—these great outdoors—can be a dangerous place if we don’t take the appropriate precautions. Even for us peaceful anglers, danger can be looming around the corner, ready to strike like a hungry muskie.
Sound dramatic? Maybe a little. But you might be surprised by the statistics. According to the Canadian Red Cross, approximately 525 Canadians are killed in water-related accidents each year. And that isn’t even the most surprising statistic.
In a 2009 article published by the Globe and Mail, writer Andre Picard observed that “more fishers drown than swimmers. And more fishers die than power boaters, canoeists, scuba divers, sailors and kayakers combined.”
Practitioners of our beloved sport should be alarmed by this kind of report. How can this be true? This type of claim seems preposterous, doesn’t it? If anybody respects both the beauty and perils of Mother Nature, it’s us anglers, right?
A study conducted by the Red Cross did, in fact, conclude that fishing accounted for 15% of all water-related fatalities in Canada for the ten years from 1991 to 2000. That’s right: Fishermen—statistically speaking—are at the highest risk for death on the water.
What could account for this overwhelming risk?
A closer look at the statistics reveals that alcohol consumption might certainly be a factor. It’s difficult to begrudge a fellow angler the luxury of a cold brew on a hot day of fishing, but the presence of alcohol plays a serious role in these findings. Alcohol consumption, unsurprisingly, can lead to carelessness. And carelessness is no friend to the safety-conscious angler. Personally, we’d recommend reserving the brewskies for once you’re off the water, sharing that story about “the one that got away.”
But the most shocking statistic concerns the presence of personal flotation devices. Or lack thereof. In all these reported fatalities, PFDs (or lifejackets) were present in only 10% of cases. In fact, PFDs were largely absent from a lot of the boats involved in fatal accidents.
Is it possible that we anglers are just more stubborn or negligent when it comes to water safety and personal flotation devices?
THE EVOLUTION OF THE PFD (PERSONAL FLOTATION DEVICE)
“Let me say right now, I’m no saint when it comes to—or I guess I should say when it came to—safety issues on a boat,” admits Fish’n Canada co-host Pete Bowman. “Back in the day I, too, never wore my life jacket. Believe it or not, my dad wore his more than me because he can’t swim a stroke. Me? Well, because I can swim, I guess I figured I was exempt from wearing a life jacket. Right?”
But something changed. In the mid-2000s Stearns joined the roster of sponsors for the Fish’n Canada Show. As part of their sponsorship, the Fish’n Canada hosts (and accompanying guests and guides) would be required to don the company’s branded inflatable PFDs. What began as a business endeavour, however, quickly became an eye-opening experience and an ongoing lesson on the importance of water safety and proper precautions.
The first major discovery brought about by this new partnership was that PFD designs had improved significantly. These potentially life-saving devices were not just the bulky, uncomfortable, garishly coloured vests of days gone by. The supplied inflatable PFDs (available with manual inflation models, or automatic inflation triggered by submersion) were light, comfy, and imposed no noticeable restriction on the wearer’s range of motion. And dare we say, they looked pretty spiffy.
THE LAW OF FNC1
Fast forward a few years, and the Fish’n Canada hosts now insist on wearing their PFDs both on- and off-camera. Today, nobody boards FNC1 (the third star of the Fish’n Canada Show, their cherished Princecraft) without a PFD.
“We imposed a mandatory life jacket law on the Fish’n Canada Show about ten years ago,” adds host Angelo Viola, reiterating that “no one is allowed to set foot on FNC1 until they comply. I have personally been encouraging all of my colleagues in the TV fishing show biz to do the same. Unfortunately, not all of them see things our way when it comes to this issue. But we continue to fight the good fight.”
“Nowadays, if you see me on the water, but don’t see me with my PFD on, it’s only due to this old mind experiencing a brain-fart,” says Pete. “Because in my normal mind frame, I always put one on and insist that my fishing partners do the same. These modern-day miracles are light, comfortable, and small compared to the traditional vest-style or key-hole life jackets. In my mind, there’s no excuse anymore.”
Angelo adds: “One of my co-hosts on ODJ Radio—retired OPP Staff Sergeant Brad Schlorff—and I have been advocating for mandatory life jacket legislation for everyone that ventures out on the water. We all need to take a zero-tolerance approach to water safety.”
Wearing a PFD at all times on the water may be the law of FNC1, but it isn’t yet the law of the land. Although federal law does require a life jacket to be available for everybody on board a watercraft, there’s nothing that specifies they must be worn. Even vulnerable children are not legally required to wear one.
TIME FOR CHANGE?
Today is National Lifejacket Day. And so it seems like the perfect day to ask the question: Is it time for the laws to change? For people like Cara McNulty, the bereaved mother of Joshua Steinburg, the change is long overdue. And so she is forging a campaign to get our laws changed and ensure greater safety precautions are in place for Canadian youth.
If you support this cause—as we do—please take a moment to sign the petition to make life jackets mandatory in Canada for kids.
Do you wear your life jacket or PFD when you’re out on the water? What are your thoughts on Canada’s life jacket laws? Let us know in the comments below.
Please note: Unlike traditional inherently-buoyant life jackets, even under current law, inflatable PFDs (like the undeniably stylish ones that keep Ang and Pete safe on the water) must be worn at all times to be legal. They cannot just be stored on the boat. Also, they can only be used by individuals sixteen or older. For more information on Personal Flotation Devices and the associated rules and regulations, check out the Transport Canada website.