Life jackets work in one position -- on

OUTDOORS

August 09, 1994|By PETER BAKER

Friday evening, with the wind up in the teens and waves running 3 feet in some areas, a long line of sailboats paraded out the Severn River to the starting line of the Governor's Cup race.

Like most parades, the procession was colorful -- gold and white sails, polished boat hulls, many crews in matching shirts, all set against the slate gray clouds of a darkening sky.

The Governor's Cup, an overnight race from Annapolis to St. Mary's City, is a popular event and draws large numbers of boats from around the Chesapeake. This year, the 70-mile race drew 236 boats in 10 classes.

In most years, everyone arrives at the finish line safe and sound. In fact, the Governor's Cup and bay sailboat racing in general have an excellent safety record.

But this year's was not like most.

Stephen Bickell, an experienced, 47-year-old sailor from Annapolis, was knocked overboard from the 40-foot sloop Electra Friday evening. His body was found off Tilghman Island Sunday afternoon.

According to Natural Resources Police, Bickell was not wearing a life jacket, even though by 7:45 p.m., northerly winds were gusting above 20 knots and seas were running 4 feet.

Should Bickell have been wearing a life jacket? Had he been wearing one, would it have saved his life?

Maybe.

According to reports of the incident, Bickell was knocked overboard by the boat's boom, the spar that supports the bottom of the mainsail. Others in the Electra's crew threw a life preserver to Bickell when he went over, but he was not seen again by the crew of the Electra or Coast Guard and NRP search teams.

Had Bickell been wearing a proper life jacket, it is likely that even if he had been knocked unconscious by the boom, the vest would have turned him so that his head and face were above water. A bright orange life vest also is much easier to locate than a human form, especially at night, when the seas are up and, from a distance, even small boats seem able to hide within the swells.

Who should make the call on life jackets, when they should be worn and where? Too often, it is left to individual judgment, and there are plenty of marginal weather conditions in which no one wants to be the first to strap one on.

For my money, the skipper should make the decision, and that decision should be made well to the safe side of danger. But in that parade to the starting line Friday evening, for example, no more than a

handful of racers among more than 1,000 had on life vests.

I didn't have one on, either, despite being out alone on a rough evening in a small powerboat. In fact, I hadn't even considered putting one on.

Why not? Life vests are restrictive, hot, sticky, just plain uncomfortable, and the boat was handling well, the bilge was dry and only occasionally did a well-formed roller rise.

No doubt, many others out there that evening felt the same way, despite approaching darkness and the prospect of a spirited spinnaker ride downwind to the mouth of the Potomac River.

State and federal regulations require Coast Guard-approved personal flotation devices for every person aboard a boat. But regulations do not require that the devices be worn.

According to state and federal statistics, 80 percent of the people who drown in boating accidents would have survived had they been wearing life vests.

Take, for example, a second situation Friday evening off Cove Point near the mouth of the Patuxent River.

Four people aboard a 36-foot catamaran were thrown overboard when their boat capsized at about 10 p.m. in 20-knot winds and 3-foot seas. A state police helicopter using a searchlight found the four people 90 minutes later, clinging to their overturned boat. All were wearing life vests, and all survived.

The fact of the matter is that a life jacket can't save you unless it has been strapped on.

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