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Around Our Town...Recreation

04/01/2005 - After a long, cold Wyoming winter many people can't wait to launch their boat during the early weeks of spring. Yet sadly, early spring is when the majority of boating deaths occur in Wyoming and across the nation. And worse, most of them could be avoided.

"Nearly 25 percent of all early season boating accidents result in fatalities, primarily due to cold-weather exposure caused by hypothermia," said Jonathan Stephens, wildlife technician for the Casper Region office of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. "But practicing safe boating can help ensure that your family boating excursion does not turn into another disaster."

During the 2001 boating season Wyoming experienced nine boating related fatalities. All of these fatalities were attributed to cold-water drowning. Many, if not all, could have been avoided if the boaters had been better prepared for the unexpected.

"Life jackets are the single most important item in boat safety," Stephens said. "We recommend you wear them, but at a bare minimum at least have them on board with you." In fact, Wyoming's Watercraft Regulations require that a life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD) is available for every passenger. PFDs are also required attire for activities such as water skiing and being towed by a boat or other device.

Even if a person is wearing a PFD or life jacket, being submerged in cold water in early spring could prove deadly. "Water temperatures are only in the 40 degree range this time of year, making hypothermia a serious risk," Stephens said. Hypothermia means losing heat faster than your body can produce it, and cold-water immersion hypothermia (acute hypothermia) happens very quickly.

In water temperatures below 70 degrees most lightly clothed people tend to lose body heat faster than they can produce it. How quickly usually depends on several factors, including age, gender, weight, water temperature, the victims physical and mental condition, clothing being worn, use of a PFD by the victim, and the amount of energy the victim expends while in the water. Other significant factors include the victims' knowledge of hypothermia, its symptoms, and the person's will to survive.

Signs of hypothermia include continual shivering, overall poor coordination, slurred speech, memory lapse, muscle rigidity, drowsiness, unconsciousness and, if left untreated, death.

"The chance of survival is poor the longer you're in the cold water," Stephens said. Boaters should be certain that they know how to recognize the signs of hypothermia and seek medical help immediately if anyone begins to show the signs.

Boating accidents can also be caused by equipment that is in poor operating condition. Boats should be soundly built, free of fire and safety hazards, and should contain all of the safety equipment that is required by the Wyoming Watercraft Regulations. And the equipment should be in good working order, too. "When you need it the most is not the time to find out that something doesn't work," Stephens said.

Even if a boat and its equipment are in top condition many other factors can cause boating accidents, and weather is a big one. Anyone who has lived in Wyoming for even a short time knows how quickly the weather can change. A calm, cloudless day can suddenly become stormy and a small gust of wind can quickly turn into 20 to 35 mile-per-hour sustained winds. "Plan for poor weather conditions," Stephens said. "Know what you and your boat can handle before you go out."

And finally, boaters should be familiar with the Wyoming Watercraft Regulations, which are available at any Game and Fish Department office or at the G&F web page at http://gf.state.wy.us/admin/regulations/index.asp. Or call the Casper Regional office at 473-3400 for more information.

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