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New Life Jacket Law Takes Effect, Addresses Off-Season Fatalities

New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commissioner Carol Ash is reminding boaters that a new state law that took effect Nov. 1 requires that all boaters on recreational watercraft less than 21 feet in length including motorboats, canoes, kayaks, rowboats and sailboats must wear a personal flotation device (PFD) from Nov. 1 through May 1 on New York waters.

The measure, signed into law by Governor Paterson in August, was sought by OPRHP to address a troubling rash of fatalities involving off-season boaters on small boats who were not wearing PFDs. In recent years, roughly 25 percent of the state’s boating fatalities occurred in the off-season. In New York State, there were 21 boating fatalities in 2008, of which five occurred in cold water conditions. In 2007, there were also 21 total fatalities, of which eight were in cold water conditions.

“The new law will save lives by sending a strong message that boaters should always prepare for the unexpected,” Ash said. “Frigid water can quickly overcome even the strongest swimmers and significantly reduce the chance that those not wearing a life jacket will survive. A life jacket, no matter what the season, is the single best way boaters can keep themselves safe on the water.”

Officials noted immersion in cold water, considered less than 68 degrees Fahrenheit, can cause sudden cardiac arrest, a gasping reflex that causes inhalation of water, the loss of swimming ability and grip strength and eventually hypothermia and unconsciousness. These risks are compounded by the absence of other boaters on the water at this time of year, reducing the likelihood that others will come to the aid of a boater in distress.

It’s also important to note that the water temperature is often dissimilar to the air temperature. Warm, sunny days in the late fall may obscure the fact that lakes and rivers have quickly cooled due to shorter days and freezing nighttime temperatures.

Under the law, each boat passenger must wear a securely fastened, United States Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device of the appropriate size while the boat is under way, that is, while the vessel is not at anchor, or made fast to the shore, or aground. Boaters are subject to the law while on any lakes, rivers, streams and waters within the state that are not privately owned. Violation of the law could result in a fine of $25 to $100. Commercial boats and racing crew shells of organized rowing teams are not subject to the law.

In addition to the new requirement, PFDs must be worn year-round by all children under 12 years of age on any boat less than 65 feet in length, unless within a fully enclosed cabin; by anyone towed, such as water-skiers or wake-boarders; and while on board a personal watercraft. Otherwise, a PFD must be available for every passenger on board every vessel, including non-motorized watercraft such as canoes, kayaks and rowboats.

For more information about boating safety and marine recreation in New York State, visit