Michigan’s beautiful lakes have always made it a boater’s paradise.
The Great Lakes State boasts 40,175 square miles some water. Only Alaska has more, at 94,743 square miles.
This means Michigan also has much higher boat ownership rates than most of the country. About 22% of all Michigan households own some kind of boat, jet ski, canoe, kayak, or paddleboard.
Anticipating a post-pandemic push to get back on the water, safety experts say parents and children need to approach this boating season a little differently.
Drowning is at the top of the list of concerns, said Erica Michiels, MD, who specializes in pediatric emergency medicine at Spectrum Health.
For children 14 and under, drowning is the second cause of death, the cause of road accidents. Excluding deaths from birth defects, drowning is the most common cause of death in the 1 to 4 year age group, according to the Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention.
Some studies have already shown that drownings are on the rise in the Great Lakes, with a peak of incidents reported last summer on Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario.
Beyond that, a lot of other things can go wrong on the lake, turning a day of aquatic fun into a spooky trip to the emergency room.
Boats frequently collide with other recreational vehicles, according to the US Coast Guard, which tracks national and state statistics for boating.
Sometimes people are hit by propellers. There are water skiing, wake surfing and tubing accidents, engine fires and numerous sunburns.
Parents can prevent many of these accidents by focusing on four areas.
1. Make life jackets a priority
Michigan law requires that all children under 6 years old wear a properly fitted life jacket on the deck of a boat. Boats also need a life jacket available for each person.
“Most people do a good job following these regulations,” said Dr. Michiels.
But she thinks it’s essential that everyone in the family wear a life jacket, no matter what.
“People often think, ‘I’m a good swimmer, I could save my kids’ or ‘Oh my kid can swim,’ she said. “But how well can someone swim if they just hit their head in a crash?” Or if they are thrown from the boat, unconscious?
“And many boating accidents happen so quickly,” she said, “so there is little time to react.”
Cold water, especially in Lake Superior, adds another risk, she said.
“It causes an immediate hyperventilating response, which can cause people to pass out,” she said. “It can also cause them to breathe so quickly that they take in water.”
It is especially important for adolescents to see adults wearing life jackets.
“They often just do what their parents do,” she said. “But because they have so much less experience in driving boats, it is much more dangerous for them to leave without a life jacket.”
Coast Guard believes life jackets could help prevent 80% of all boating-related fatalities.
Make sure the vest is snug. Check the label for weight or breast size recommendations, depending on the Boat US Foundation. Have your child try it on, buckle and tighten all the straps. Have your child raise their arms, then gently lift them up through the top of the lifejacket arm openings.
If it rises above its ears, it’s too big.
2. Learn about the rules
Learn more about boating safety by Michigan. If you plan to leave your teen in the boat alone, insist that he take a safety course.
“We do a lot to teach teenage driver education, but because boating is done in wide waters, parents worry less,” said Dr. Michiels.
But just as teens are more likely to be involved in car crashes, they are also more likely to have collisions with boats.
Jet skis, which can go up to 50 mph, can be especially dangerous.
The sharp increase in boat sales during the pandemic, a jump of more than 9% in 2020, make it more important. While it’s great that more families are enjoying the water, it also means there are potentially more inexperienced sailors, creating dangers for everyone.
3. Don’t drink or browse
As tempting as it may be to pack that beer cooler, reconsider your decision. Alcohol is the most common contributing factor in boating accidents, according to the Coast Guard.
This does not apply only to those who operate the boat, but to other adults who can easily be distracted from the supervision of children.
“Watch how people behave on a pontoon boat,” she said. “Adults walk around, break a beer and start having fun, often forgetting that children can be particularly unpredictable in situations they are not used to.”
4. Stay focused
It is essential that people remember that drowning is called a “silent killer”.
“If your child falls into the water and starts to struggle, you won’t hear it,” Dr. Michiels said. “She’ll use all her energy to try to stay afloat, she won’t be able to scream.”
It is a good idea to constantly remind yourself that you are your child’s most important safety role.
“Children imitate adults,” she said. “The safer adults use in boats, the more likely they are to have an impact on children.”