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No Titanic Here

By Dr. Scott Hamilton
August 2, 2020

This week’s guest columnists are Dylan Poche, M.D. and Brandon Saucier, M.D., Family Practice residents at University Hospital & Clinics in Lafayette.


As a kid, I spent summer weekends at the family fishing camp. Lots of time we were tubing, being towed on an inner tube by our roaring boat, slaloming and occasionally bouncing off when we hit big waves. One bad time I’ll never forget: another boat, driven by someone who’d been drinking, cut between our tube and boat. Hitting the tow rope, they yanked my girlfriend, who was on the tube, toward the stern of our boat. She hit the propeller, sustaining deep lacerations. Worse, she spent a long time in the hospital when they got infected.

Many South Louisiana families are now on the water tubing, fishing, boating or zipping around on personal watercraft. Since this time is often for recreation, they couple it with another South Louisiana good time tradition—drinking. This leads to boat driving like above: carelessness about where the boat’s going, how fast, and what it runs into. Impaired boaters are also more likely to drown if they fall overboard. They’re knocked out or pass out more easily, and are much less likely to be wearing lifejackets.

Boating isn’t like driving a car. Boats don’t have the built-in safety features of cars like seatbelts or enclosed cabins so passengers don’t fly out. There’s also no brake pedal; stopping requires much more foresight. In cars, the safe road is clearly marked with painted lines, warning signs and guard rails to keep you on the straight and narrow. Boat “roads” aren’t obvious: maybe a channel marker here and there, and you need a chart to know where the underwater hazards are like sandbars and rocks. The rules of the road, particularly who has the right of way when boats approach, are more complicated. Many boaters skip a driving course. Fun fact: the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries requires everyone born after 1983 to complete an approved Boater Education Course, even to operate a personal watercraft! This goes for kids and adults. However, LDWF doesn’t have the personnel to enforce this rule like police ashore. Ever see someone on on a Jet-ski or a Sea-Doo get pulled over?

My father was strict about water safety, particularly enforcing wearing lifejackets in boats. I wondered why he was like that, more than my friends’ parents, until one day he told me. I had an uncle who owned a racing boat. He was a very experienced driver, and would always wear his lifejacket. One day, he was heading to a nearby camp and didn’t wear it. Going 30 miles per hour a freak accident happened– his steering cable broke and the boat jinked. He was thrown out, knocked out by the impact on the water, and never came up. According to the CDC, there are more than 3000 deaths each year due to accidental drowning. About one in five of these victims are under age 14. While many of these drown in pools, many also die in boating accidents. Thus, lifejackets should be worn by people of all ages, in all circumstances, near any kind of water. Kids particularly should wear them, since they’re inherently less careful than adults about falling off docks, out of boats or in to pools.

Kids are also less capable swimmers and thus more at risk when they tumble in. As we mentioned last week, adults are less attentive when drinking. Alcohol and water seem to mix—at pool parties and on boats. Imbibing adults are careless boat operators—driving recklessly and being more lax about kids wearing lifejackets. They run into things like docks, rocks or other boats and everyone gets thrown in. At pool parties drinkers are more distracted and thus less observant of kids in the water. Nighttime parties are the worst; amidst the hubbub and dark a kid will fall in the water and no one sees it until too late. Often, people don’t perceive the risk of being near water. It’s a sunny day and everyone’s happy to be out. The water’s surface seems calm and, well, solid.

Being next to water is not like standing on a cliff. Our brains understand the risk of falling off that cliff: you’ll die! That same protective perception doesn’t seem to apply to water. Thus people need to be conscious of the risk, for themselves and their kids. At pool parties or in boats, have a designated sober adult to assure everyone’s safety. And put those jackets on!