Death on the water: Life jackets make a difference, stats show

Volunteer diver Dave Oehlke, 67, doesn't suit up for calls as often as he did when he first joined North Dakota's Lakes Region Search and Rescue team as an original member in 1981, but he's been on hundreds of calls over the years.

Volunteer diver Dave Oehlke, 67, doesn’t suit up for calls as often as he did when he first joined North Dakota’s Lakes Region Search and Rescue team as an original member in 1981, but he’s been on hundreds of calls over the years.

"Sometimes, things turn out A-OK," he said. "Sometimes, things just do not."

Over the years, Oehlke has retrieved people from the water for different reasons, from drivers veering off poorly lit roads to hunting accidents to suicides, but when it comes to boating accidents, there is one common thread he’s seen that separates what might have been a rescue scenario from a recovery.

When people drown in boating accidents, Oehlke said, it’s generally because they weren’t wearing life jackets.

Of all the calls he’s responded to, Oehlke said he’s only seen one instance where someone who had been wearing a life jacket when his boat capsized and did not survive. The man succumbed to hypothermia before he could reach the shore.


In 2015, the U.S. Coast Guard recorded 4,158 boating accidents and 626 boating deaths across the U.S. Of those fatalities, 85 percent of confirmed drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket.

In Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources keeps a record of every boating accident and fatality on the state’s lakes and rivers. In five of the seven boating fatalities reported this year to the DNR as of June 20, victims were not wearing life jackets at the time of the accident. That statistic has hovered between 70 percent and 93 percent of Minnesota boating fatalities in the past five years.

Detailed information regarding life vest wear in North Dakota could not be obtained from the state Game and Fish Department for this article.


‘All the difference’

Oehlke said he remembers being called to bring his water rescue dogs, two towering Newfoundlands named Trina and Trisha, to assist in a recovery operation in Perham, Minn., about a decade ago.

The day before, he was told, a group of young people had been out on the water, drinking on and off, when two passengers had to use the bathroom. They jumped into the water from either side of the boat, but only one person resurfaced, he said.

Oehlke said he suspected that the shock of being submerged in cold water after a hot, dehydrating day in the sun caused the victim to gasp and swallow water.


"A life jacket probably would have made all the difference in the world," he said. "I can’t say enough really about life jackets."

In Minnesota, boaters on vessels smaller than 16 feet long must keep onboard as many Coast Guard-approved life jackets as there are passengers, though passengers aren’t required to wear their vests while boating. Longer vessels are required to carry a floatation device in addition to the life jackets.

North Dakota law requires that everyone on boats less than 16 feet long to wear Coast Guard-approved life vests. Boaters in vessels longer than 16 feet must have easy access to their own life jacket, and there must be a floatation device or ring onboard.

In both states, children 10 years and younger in the boat are required to wear jackets at all times.

"A lot of people make the mistake of assuming they can swim well and that means they think they don’t need to wear their life jacket," said Stan Linnell, boating and water safety manager for the Minnesota’s DNR.

They forget to take into account the sudden nature of capsizes and falls, especially if the boat is moving at high speeds, he said. Also, people may not be able to swim to safety if they’ve been stunned by the impact or knocked unconscious.

"Of course, you add alcohol in the mix, too, and that further decreases the chances you will have the coordination and understanding to save yourself," Linnell said.

Statistics show that alcohol is a primary cause of boating accidents.


In the US, alcohol played a leading role in 17 percent of boating deaths in 2015, according to Coast Guard data.

In North Dakota, six of the 15 boating fatalities within the past five years were alcohol-related. In Minnesota, 30 percent of the 75 fatalities between 2011 and 2015 involved alcohol.

Minnesota has averaged fifteen fatalities each year from 2011 to 2015, according to Coast Guard data. This year, Linnell said there have been eight boating fatalities to date, which is higher than it has been at this time in the past nine years.

By the end of June, North Dakota has had one boating accident, said Game and Fish Department operations supervisor Jackie Lundstrom. There has been an average of three boating deaths per year in North Dakota in the past five years, according to the Coast Guard reports.

The number of fatal boating incidents in North Dakota is lower compared to Minnesota, but Coast Guard data shows that the fatality rate is higher because North Dakota has fewer registered boats.


‘No tolerance’

One of the most dramatic boating while intoxicated crashes Oehlke responded to occurred last Aug. 9 on Devils Lake. The boat operator, Thomas Burns, was speeding up to 38 mph when the boat struck a tree in the water. The impact left 26-year-old April Stenger dead and four injured and left the boat’s bow bent upward at a 90 degree angle.


Burns pleaded guilty in January to manslaughter and four other charges, and later received a 10-year prison sentence, with eight years suspended, for the crash.

Oehlke called it a "horrendous accident" involving alcohol, high speeds and boating in the dark – all combining to create a "recipe for disaster."

"In fact, any two of those three things will probably result in an accident," he said.

In North Dakota, boat operators with a blood alcohol concentration of .10 or over and may have their boating privileges revoked, in addition to other penalties.

The penalties in Minnesota for boating while intoxicated are the same as for driving drunk, Linnell said. First time offenders can be fined up to $1,000, serve possible jail time and see their boat impounded, he said, and penalties grow harsher with repeated offenses.

"If you’re (found) boating while intoxicated, you will get arrested," Linnell said. "There’s no tolerance."

To get the word out, both Minnesota and North Dakota participated in Operation Dry Water, a nationwide campaign run by the Coast Guard to educate people against boating while intoxicated. Last month, water safety patrols on the county and state levels teamed up to increase their presence on the water and educate boaters against drinking while boating, as well as other water and boat safety basics.

It’s something they try to do as much as possible year round, Linnell said.


In Devils Lake, Oehlke, the volunteer search and rescue diver, makes a point to teach kids basic water safety from a young age. It’s something he said he thinks everyone who spends time on the water should know.

"I certainly don’t expect people to swim in life jackets, but it would be nice if people knew the basics of water rescue," he said.

When he gives presentations, Oehlke brings his dogs, who are "a big hit at schools," to assist in teaching how to be safe on boats and the "Reach-Throw-Go" of water rescue.

Children pay more attention to him when they’re petting his large Newfoundlands, he said. "They’re probably the biggest reason that we haven’t had more fatalities from drowning in the area."

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