Boating safety has become a focus ahead of the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, as federal and state officials ask Alaskans to properly prepare for outings on the state’s waterways.

The U.S. Coast Guard has released a series of boating safety tips to mark National Safe Boating Week, while Alaskans of all stripes wore life jackets to work as a reminder of personal flotation devices' necessity while boating on the Last Frontier.

"Boating safety is of paramount importance," said Paul Webb, a search and rescue specialist with the Coast Guard’s 17th District. "With the ever-changing weather in Alaska the only thing that we have control over is how we prepare. Preparing for a worst-case scenario grants you a better chance of survival and allows the Coast Guard valuable time that you may not otherwise have."

Last year in Alaska, the Coast Guard saved 260 lives, assisted 897 people and saved more than $800,000 worth of property.

Alaska boating deaths have increased over the last several years based on statistics from the state Office of Boating Safety, rising from seven in 2015, to 16 in 2016, and 20 in 2017.

“The primary cause of Alaska’s boating fatalities continues to be a cold-water immersion-related drowning or disappearance immediately following a capsize, swamping, ejection, or fall overboard, involving a person not wearing a life jacket,” state officials wrote last year.

The 2018 death toll rose yet again to 21 according to Annie Grenier, the office’s education coordinator. That total includes three Tuntutuliak residents who died after a Kuskokwim River accident in August, as well as a woman struck and killed near Big Lake by an allegedly drunk boater now charged in her death.

State officials hope to head off more deaths this year by delivering a safety message at the outset of the summer boating season.

"Just leading into Memorial Day weekend, we see a lot of boating accidents,“ Grenier said. "People are taking their boats out for the first time, so they're a little rusty; they're still getting used to their gear.”

Although hypothermia is often the greatest perceived danger from falling into water, Grenier said the most immediate — and lethal — threat come from the body’s response to sudden immersion in cold water. According to the National Center for Cold Water Safety, a nonprofit group, that threat begins with the impulse to gasp.

“This isn’t just a little gasp, like the kind you’d experience if somebody jumped out of a closet and scared you,” center staff wrote. “It’s a huge gasp that totally fills your lungs. You may experience several of these gasps in a row. If your head is underwater when you gasp, you will immediately drown, and without the support of a [personal flotation device], you will head straight for the bottom.”

A life jacket, Grenier said, makes both cold shock and subsequent cold incapacitation far less deadly. Hypothermia, by comparison, typically takes at least half an hour to set in.

“If you have a life jacket on, you can survive for a lot longer than people think you can,” she said.

Safety equipment has to be not just present but used. After a boat struck a log on the Yukon River last June, leaving one man missing and presumed drowned, Alaska State Troopers said the boat’s occupants had been “sitting on the life jackets.”

“Even if you have the best gear, if it's on your boat but not on your person — with the accidents we see in Alaska, you don't have the opportunity to use it,” Grenier said.

Here are the Coast Guard’s boating safety tips:

1. Wear a life jacket; they save lives. In Alaska, boaters are required to have one Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person aboard their vessel, and they must be in serviceable condition. Persons 13 years of age and younger are required by law to wear a life jacket at all times when in an open boat, on the deck of a boat, or when waterskiing.

2. File a float plan before you get underway detailing your trip to aid rescuers in the event you are overdue. This can be as simple as telling someone where you are going and when you return, but the Coast Guard encourages you to write it down, include details, and to give it to someone who will check that you made it back safe.

3. Take multiple forms of communication devices and extra batteries and chargers. Always remember, VHF-FM radio is the primary communications network for the maritime boating community. Enabling the Digital Selective Calling features on your VHF-FM marine radio can broadcast your location and information to every boat within range in an emergency. Also consider a personal emergency beacon, and ensure it is registered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at http://www.sarsat.noaa.gov/beacon.html

4. Check all required safety equipment to be sure it is in good working order. Vessel safety checks by the Coast Guard Auxiliary are free. Trained examiners help boaters review their equipment and give advice about how to improve safety. 

5. Check the weather. Be sure to look at the immediate weather forecast as well as the extended forecast; weather can change in Alaska in a matter of hours. Be prepared for it. The National Weather Service offers local and statewide current and extended marine weather forecasts on their website, which are broadcast on VHF marine-band radios.

6. Dress for the water temperature. Though the air may be warming up, the water is still cold and does not rise above low 50s even at the height of summer. Wet suits and dry suits offer protection against hypothermia in the event of immersion in the water.  Thermal protection against the effects of cold-water shock can save your life.

7. Boat sober. Never boat under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The Office of Boating Safety is hosting an Anchorage workshop on cold water survival at 6 p.m. Monday, at the Bass Pro Shops Outpost store in the Glenn Square shopping center at 3046 Mountain View Dr.

More tips can be found at the Coast Guard’s Office of Boating Safety website, with details on vessel safety checks and how to request one posted by the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Rachel McPherron contributed information to this story.

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