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State urges spring boaters to take safety courses (and wear a life vest)

Spring has sprung, many people are now vaccinated and there’s renewed excitement to get outdoors. The pandemic has again led to a surge in outdoor recreation as people look for safe things to do in the open air.

Last year, the surge included recreational boating, with lots of folks discovering low-barrier-to-entry paddle sports for the first time.

This year, officials hope more people will take advantage of safety courses offered through the state parks department.They say that’s especially important in springtime when the air may be warming up but the water remains dangerously cold.

Boating programs manager Rob Sendak says there were 24 recreational boating fatalities last year – a slight drop from 2019. But there has been an increase in fatalities on human-powered watercraft such as paddleboards, kayaks and canoes.

“Last year we had 13, so that's over 50 percent of our total fatalities in recreational boating. And we've – over the course of the last decade, we've seen that number slowly tick up,” Sendak says.

He says paddlers often don’t take safety courses because they’re not mandatory. Only those operating vessels with motors of 15 horsepower or greater are required to take a course and carry a Boater Education Card.

But the U.S. Coast Guard does require anyone on a paddleboard or kayak to carry at least one properly fitted life vest per person. Fines for failing to do so start at $99 per violation. And Sendak likes to remind people that life vests are the number one thing that can save lives in the cold water of the Pacific Northwest.

“When you fall into the water out in the ocean, and if you're not prepared with the right clothing or you don't have a life vest on, you literally have seven or eight minutes before organs in your body start shutting down, in a normal person. So that that cold water, that's a big deal,” he says.

Historically, Sendak says, 80 percent of recreational boating fatalities are not wearing life vests. Last year, only one of the 24 fatalities in the state had formal boater safety education.

A free online safety course for paddlers is available online

You can also find information there on safety education requirements for motorized watercraft and additional courses that may be taken for a fee.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to