Alaska drownings led the nation, with alcohol use and lack of lifejackets often involved

A skiff speeds up a river with low-lyingg bans
A boat in Quinhagak, Alaska (Kristy Shallenberger/KYUK)

Alaska leads the nation in drowning deaths. The state’s cold water is a factor, but so is human behavior.

According to a recent report from the Alaska Division of Epidemiology, nearly nine of 10 Alaskans who drowned in non-occupational settings were not wearing a life jacket. And more than one in three drownings were known or suspected to have involved alcohol use.

That state data was from 2016 to 2021. And federal data show that in 2021, Alaska had an age-adjusted rate of 4.4 drowning deaths per 100,000 residents, which was roughly twice as many as almost every other state.

The Alaska Office of Boating Safety is working to put a dent in those numbers. Education coordinator Annie Grenier says that includes boating safety classes and their Kids Don’t Float program, which provides free-to-use life jackets at places people access water, as well as a new initiative with Alaska breweries called Save It For The Shore.

Grenier says the state has a long way to go toward decreasing drowning deaths.

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Annie Grenier: You know, anytime you’re talking about a loss of life, that’s a family member, that’s a friend. If we still have one person, that’s too many. So, yeah, it’s definitely a problem in Alaska, again, statistically speaking, compared to other states. And we do have very cold water, and that is one of the largest contributing factors. If you are kayaking in Florida, and you flip your kayak and you’re a pretty confident swimmer, if anything, it probably feels refreshing. You just swim back to your boat, and you get back in it. But here, because of the physiological effects of, cold water immersion, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a good swimmer. If you’re not wearing a life jacket, it’s really difficult to overcome those initial reactions that we have. And that’s one of the reasons that we have such a high drowning rate in Alaska.

Casey Grove: And then there are other risk factors, right? Things that are associated with the drowning deaths, and you look at those data points. What are some of those things? You already mentioned (personal flotation devices), maybe we could just start with that.

AG: Yeah, so again, going back to some of these reactions that we have to a cold water immersion event, we have to have on a life jacket if we want to give ourselves a good chance of surviving that. Life jackets have come a really long way. There’s a lot of options now. They’re a lot more comfortable. There’s a lot more options even as far as sizing, not just style.

We have, primarily, sudden onset emergencies, speaking on the non-commercial boating. And what I mean by that is most of our incidents that lead to fatalities are capsizes, people falling overboard, ejections, swamping. Most of these happen instantaneously. So if you don’t have on a life jacket, you don’t have time to put one on between the start of the emergency and the time your body hits the water. So we have to wear those life jackets all the time.

Another contributing factor, alcohol has been a contributing factor that we know of in 37% of the boating fatalities over the last 30 years. We know that it hasn’t been a factor in about 30% of those fatalities, and then there’s a big area that we’re pretty unsure of. So that number could actually be quite a bit higher. Alcohol and boating does not pair well together. It affects your balance, it affects your judgment, it makes you more likely to end up in the water. And then it makes it more difficult to survive that event once you’re in the water. So we are partnering with breweries across the state coming up here for the Fourth of July weekend. We’re running a campaign called “Save It for the Shore.” The breweries are going to help us promote that message, that drinking and boating just don’t mix. And that we want to recreate responsibly while we’re out there. So we’re pretty excited about that. We have over 30 breweries across the state who are going to help us kind of promote that messaging. So that’ll be great to see.

CG: You mentioned that if you’re drinking out on the water, that it can contribute to you maybe losing your balance and ending up in the water. But then you also said surviving that incident might be more difficult if you have alcohol in your system. How is that?

AG: So one of the things that our body does to protect itself in the event of a cold water immersion is we experienced something called vasoconstriction. So within the first 10 minutes, your body’s going to realize that it’s very cold. And a lot of people mistake this cold incapacitation or vasoconstriction for hypothermia. And what it actually is, is your body trying to prevent hypothermia from happening. So the blood vessels in your arms and your legs are going to constrict, your body’s going to send less blood to your extremities where it’s gonna get cold faster and keep more blood in your core where it can keep it warmer longer. So, big picture, this is a very good thing. Our vital organs are going to stay warmer for much longer. And because our body’s doing this even in really cold water, it’s going to take at least 30 minutes before core body temperature will even start to drop. So if we have on a lifejacket, we have a lot longer to survive in the water than a lot of people, I think, assume.

The problem with alcohol is it’s a vasodilator. And so it doesn’t allow your body to go through this process of vasoconstriction, and so those blood vessels are going to stay up on the surface of your skin where they’re going to cool. And they’re going to keep circulating through your body back to your vital organs, back to your heart where it’s going to cool more rapidly and ultimately decrease your survival time.

CG: It seems like, you know, there’s the Kids Don’t Float program, and that puts life jackets at places like boat launches and provides people with those actual PFDs to wear. But then it seems like so much of it is about education and trying to just get information out to people, and then they’ve got to have their own personal responsibility around that. And like you said, I mean, these numbers have been high for a long time. So do you ever get frustrated that people are not exercising that personal decision making or that personal responsibility that they would need to keep themselves alive?

AG: Yeah, you know, the Kids Don’t Float Program, the lifejacket loaner board program — there’re 36 confirmed saves, is the way that we like to phrase it. So 36 people who went into the water, who were wearing a life jacket, because they borrowed one from the Kid’s Don’t Float lifejacket loaner board and who otherwise wouldn’t have had one. And so that’s pretty encouraging. I like to think that number is actually quite a bit higher, we just haven’t heard those stories. But you have the people that we have heard from, I mean, 36 people, again, you’re talking about people’s kids, their parents. It’s not just kids life jackets on those boards, it’s adult life jackets, too. Family members, friends. That’s huge, that we know that those people are still here, because they had no life jacket. And so we know that program works. It takes a lot of time, a lot of coordination getting those life jackets all over the state every year. But we wholeheartedly believe that it’s working and that it’s saving lives.

And then just anecdotally, again, I work with a lot of adults, and I’ve been really encouraged over the last few years. Because we don’t have mandatory education, it makes my job actually a lot more fun, because people who do come to our classes want to be there, and they want to learn more about boating. And I’ve seen a huge increase in people who are willing to do that. There is some speculation that it’s just a new generation, there’s a little less stigma about saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing with this boat, and someone’s offering a free class, so I’m just gonna take it, and I’m going to learn, and that way I know what I’m doing.” And so that’s been really encouraging. We’ve had a huge increase in demand for education. And then just with that, the number of people in my classes who tell me that it is their policy that anyone who comes on their boat has to have on a life jacket, and they’ve spent the money and invested in nice life jackets so that people are willing to wear them. And so, again, small things, but you know, those small wins are encouraging. And then, lastly, you know, we are seeing an increase in lifejacket wear, and that’s ultimately, I think, what’s going to give us the biggest difference in these fatality numbers and getting those drownings to decrease year after year.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Casey here

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