Water wise

Every summer, the serene waterways of Cottage Country beckon residents and visitors to come out and play. But an idyllic image of life by the water masks the danger it poses for the unprepared. It’s high time we face facts about life by the water.

By Lisa Harrison

Water safety campaigns and education services are made available regularly by organizations such as the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), municipal emergency services, the Canadian Red Cross and local marinas. Even so, preventable water-related accidents and fatalities occur every year.

In 2020, 465 Canadians suffered water-related fatalities, with 63 per cent of those occurring in a lake, pond or river, according to the Lifesaving Society’s Drowning Report. In 2021, the OPP reported that 86 per cent of fatalities in the past 11 years included a failure to wear a lifejacket (FOCA.on.ca/safe-boating). OPP Central Region, which includes Ontario’s Cottage Country, recorded 27 fatalities in 2021.

“Capsized vessels and falling overboard, are the top contributing factors in boating deaths every year,” says OPP acting sergeant Terri-Ann Pencarinha, media relations coordinator for the Central Region. “OPP data continues to confirm that the vast majority of victims who die in boating incidents are not wearing a lifejacket or personal flotation device (PFD).”

Statistics consistently show that alcohol is a factor in approximately 40 per cent of boating fatalities, according to the Canada Safe Boating Council. Last year, the City of Kawartha Lakes alone received 15 calls for water rescues, which were attended by Kawartha Lakes Fire Rescue Service (KLFRS).

“Water isn’t forgiving,” says Cameron Smith, deputy fire chief, KLFRS. “Even the strongest swimmer can meet with tragedy if they are not prepared.”

Here’s how experts recommend we get wise about water:

Get wet

Become a strong, prepared swimmer by taking courses that include water safety awareness.

“Many drowning incidents involve other factors that swimming skills alone cannot prepare an individual for,” notes the Red Cross in its online swimming and water safety tips and resources. “It’s swimming skills, combined with safety knowledge and skills, that saves lives.”

Know and maintain your craft

From outboard to paddleboard, make sure you familiarize yourself with your craft, keep it in good condition and accident-proof it as required.

“Mechanical breakdowns account for a significant number of calls for assistance to the OPP,” says Pencarinha. “Most of these embarrassing incidents are preventable by ensuring your vessel is serviceable and you have sufficient gas.”

“It’s easy to trip and fall in a boat, especially when getting in, so stow bumpers, ropes, paddles and other equipment in hatches, side storage areas and under seats,” advises Alan Gordon, owner of four RPM Marina locations in the Haliburton Highlands.

Learn the ropes

Take an operating course for your craft, accredited by Transport Canada if available, and learn from locals.

Learn and follow all Transport Canada rules and regulations for your craft, including human-powered craft such as paddleboards, and the rules and regulations for recreational towing activities such as waterskiing and wake boarding.

“If you’re not prepared for the water, you are at risk of becoming lost, stranded, or drowning,” cautions Smith. “If you do not carry the proper safety equipment for your vessel, you may face fines.”

Ontario boat renters are required only to complete a safety checklist but boat owners must have proof of competency, such as a Pleasure Craft Operator Card. To obtain the licence, an owner must take a training course, but even that doesn’t cover everything a boater needs to know about this area, according to Gordon.

“It is a good starting point, but it does not replace the common sense required when boating in Cottage Country. It is strongly recommended you go for a ride with an experienced boater prior to actually driving a boat by yourself.”

Lifejacket = BFF

Wear a Canadian-approved lifejacket or PFD – it can prove to be your best friend, a true lifesaver.

“The goal of a lifejacket is the same as that of a seatbelt – to keep you in the safest state in the event of an accident,” explains Gordon. “People forget that if you fall in the water, several things that don’t exist when driving a vehicle on the road can injure or kill people and pets.”

“First, if you can’t swim, you’ll drown without a lifejacket. Secondly, if you are injured when you fall out of, or are ejected from a boat, there is a distinct possibility you will drown, or at least struggle to sustain yourself in the water.

“Finally, if boating in spring or fall, the water can potentially put you into a hypothermic state which can seriously injure or cause you to drown. If wearing a lifejacket, it will significantly improve your odds of survival.”

Under federal law, a lifejacket or PFD must be provided for each person on a watercraft, including human-powered vessels. According to Transport Canada, compared to PFDs, lifejackets offer more flotation, enhanced thermal protection and greater capability of turning the wearer to face upward, enabling them to breathe. PFDs – like flotation wings or near-shore vests – are often designed for specific activities and come in a wider variety of types, sizes and colours.

When buying equipment, talk with knowledgeable sales staff to match your flotation device to your activity and have it properly sized and fitted. Choose a bright colour for high visibility and ensure you – and all passengers – wear one.

“Attach a whistle to your lifejacket so you can signal for help,” advises Smith. “Children and non-swimmers should always wear a properly fitted lifejacket and be supervised by an adult when on or near the water.”

Plan for success

With the following steps completed, it’ll help ensure your outing is smooth sailing:

• Keep in mind your craft’s capabilities, and your own if using human-powered craft.

• Check the weather forecast: conditions in many areas can change quickly and death from sudden cold-water immersion can happen very fast.

• Ensure your craft is in good working order, that it’s stocked with the necessary safety equipment – all in good condition – and that it has sufficient fuel.

•If paddling, choose a route that’s close to shore.

•Carry a cellphone.

•Tell others where you are going.

•Use a tracking app such as What3Words.com

Don’t drink and drive

Make it your mantra.

Avoid using alcohol or drugs when near the water as consumption can lead to injury or death due to impaired judgement. To compound the danger, wind, waves, sun and boat movement can act as stressors that increase the level of intoxication per volume of alcohol consumed, according to the Canadian Safe Boating Council.

“We continue to see impaired operation of a boat in our fatality statistics every year,” notes Pencarinha. “Alcohol and/or drug-impaired operation of a motorized marine vessel is dangerous and carries the same penalties as impaired operation of a motor vehicle.” This includes suspension of the operator’s vehicle licence.

“The public is one of our most valued safety partners and it helps when people discourage family and friends from boating while impaired,” says Pencarinha. “If someone is about to head out in a boat and you know they are impaired, call 9-1-1. In doing so, you could be saving lives.”

Keep watch

Always stay alert and have an adult swimming buddy or a spotter.

Adults make up the biggest group of drowning victims in Canada, and one-third of victims were swimming alone when they drowned, according to the Lifesaving Society. And the absence of adult supervision is a factor in most child drownings, according to the Red Cross Swimming and Water Safety Public Resource Guide.

When boating or paddling, your buddy can assist if the operator becomes incapacitated. The buddy also serves as a necessary spotter for waterskiing and other towing activities, as mandated by Transport Canada.

Swimmers and paddlers should always remain aware of their surroundings, assume that the operators of larger craft cannot see them, and be prepared to give up the right-of-way.

Slow your roll

Learn and observe all speed limits and avoid excessive speeds.

High rolling waves from a large wake can continue to fan out and capsize smaller craft without warning long after the cause is out of sight and hearing. Docking requires slow speed and practice to avoid impacts that could damage the boat and cause injury.

Motorized craft approaching tow riders or swimmers should do so at dead slow speed, says Gordon. If staying alongside a person in the water, the craft should not be moving and should be in neutral or have the motor shut off.

Tubing may very well be more thrilling at higher speeds, but it’s also more dangerous for the rider.

“Remember that you are in a boat to enjoy yourself,” advises Gordon. “You don’t have to be going fast to have a good time. Not only that, but going fast costs a lot in terms of gas. Enjoy your ride at an appropriate speed.”

Take toys seriously

The Red Cross advises that recreational water toys should always be used with a buddy. Check weather conditions before using them and actively supervise children. Non-swimmers should wear a lifejacket at all times.

Note that wind, currents and wakes can shift inflatables into deeper water, making it dangerous for non-swimmers. Anchor inflatables in shallow water and follow the above advice.

Ask for help

Whatever you need to know, feel free to ask the experts.

“We talk to people all the time about these types of issues,” says Gordon. “There are so many areas in which we can help: we advise people to ask questions, and, where possible, we’ll actually show them the best way to evaluate a situation.

“Remember, common sense is probably the biggest contributor to safety on the water. And pushing the envelope is the biggest cause of injury or death.”