There is nothing I hate hearing about more than outdoor tragedies, those moments when a fun adventure turns deadly. Yesterday a man died after his kayak capsized. His young daughter, who was wearing a life jacket, made it to shore but he, who was not wearing one, did not. The story is heartbreaking, and too common.
I think it bothers me so much because it could have been me. I spent years refusing to wear a life jacket while canoeing or kayaking, due to all the usual excuses: I’m a fine swimmer. It’s a nice day and an easy paddle. I’ve never capsized. Life jackets are too hot/restrictive/uncool.
I even took this line of thinking into my early paddles with my kids, making sure they had appropriate personal flotation devices (PFDs) on while mine remained stowed in the boat. Then, one day, I looked down at them in the canoe, safe in their life jackets, looked at my own PFD stashed at my feet and thought: “This is really, really dumb.”
Here’s why my thinking changed.
Being a good swimmer isn’t everything
I’m a fine swimmer. I have full faith in my ability to get myself to shore should anything happen. Unless I get injured. Or the water is rough. Or it’s cold and hypothermia sets in. Or I’m really far away from shore. Or I’ve been hit on the head with a paddle or canoe and am disoriented or unconscious. Or…or… or… Or how about I just wear a life jacket?
My kids are watching
I’m fully aware that the best way to teach my kids is through the choices I make. I want them to eat healthy and exercise, so I eat healthy and exercise. I want them to work hard, so I work hard. I want them to enjoy the outdoors, so I enjoy the outdoors. I want them to risk pointless drowning, so I risk pointless drowning…wait. That last one isn’t right. I want them to take reasonable precautions, so I take reasonable precautions by wearing my life jacket.
Putting on my life jacket is the safest thing for them
Let’s say the worst happens and we capsize our canoe in the middle of a lake. If I’m not wearing a lifejacket, my top priority is keeping myself afloat and alive and whatever energy I have left–and there won’t be a lot of it–will be devoted to helping my scared, possibly hurt kids. Now, imagine I am wearing a life jacket in this scenario. Suddenly my top priority becomes my kids because I no longer need to put all my energy to keeping myself up. Suddenly, my arms are free to comfort, guide, and protect and my head is clear to soothe, support, and plan.
This last reason, ultimately, was what switched me to putting on the life jacket the day I changed my mind. I looked at my two kids, then looked at my two hands, and thought: “How is this going to work if we tip over?”
I’m just glad I didn’t have that epiphany a few minutes too late.