The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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Boats and Heat, the Bane of Summer Travelers
June 15, 1995 -- Many smaller pleasure crafts now must carry a life jacket for each passenger on board, according to a newly minted U.S. Coast Guard regulation that may help travelers feel safer about recreational boating.

Unfortunately, the regulation is one of a traveler's only safeguards when they rent a pleasure craft or are out on the waters where others have rented a boat.

Surprising as it sounds, you almost never need a license or training to operate a powerful motorboat or any other kind of recreational water vehicle. Even if you've never been behind the wheel of a boat, and even if you have no knowledge of boating safety, you can rent a pleasure craft at a resort or recreational area. So can any of your equally unqualified fellow travelers.

"Taking the helm of a boat without experience is like getting behind the wheel of a car without a driver's license," warns Dave Pilvelait of Boat/US, an organization of recreational boaters. "And boats are a lot more difficult to drive than cars. They don't have brakes and there are no traffic lights on the water."

This aquatic free-for-all takes its toll, especially on novices who visit a resort and impulsively decide to rent a pleasure craft. According to Coast Guard statistics, at least 800 people die in recreational boating accidents each year, and nearly 80 percent of the deaths occurred on boats where the operator had no training.

More than 3,500 injuries and about 6,000 recreational boating accidents also occur each year and those figures are misleading. "Only a small fraction, maybe less than 5 percent" of accidents and injuries are ever reported, says Al Marmo, a Coast Guard spokesman.

Learn the basic skills Only Alabama requires adults to be licensed to operate a power boat and few boat-rental firms have any requirements. But don't construe the lack of regulation as a license to be reckless. Never rent a pleasure craft without first taking a basic boating skills and safety course. There are more than 18,000 free or low-cost courses offered nationwide. Call 800-336-2628 for the courses nearest you.

Carry the proper equipment Federal and state laws do regulate the safety equipment pleasure boats must carry. Read a Coast Guard pamphlet called Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats, then make sure any craft you rent has all the necessities. The pamphlet is free from the Office of Navigation Safety, Washington, DC 20593-0001.

Wear a life jacket The Coast Guard's new life-jacket regulation only applies to boats operating in federal waters, but play it safe. No matter where you are renting a boat, make sure there is a properly fitting life jacket on board for each passenger. Children under 12 should wear a jacket at all times.

Don't drink and boat Boat/US estimates that half of all boating deaths are related to alcohol and federal, state, and local officials are cracking down on alcohol abuse on the water.

Know where you're going Be sure you have local maps and a current nautical chart of the area. And file a "float plan" with the boat-rental office or friends on shore. Make sure it details where you're going, who's with you, and when you plan to return.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT ... HEATSTROKE
Heatstroke requires immediate attention because death can occur within four hours of the first symptoms: a staggering gait; red, hot and dry skin; no sweating; and severe headaches. A heatstroke victim's body temperature will soar as high as 106 degrees.

How to treat heat stroke? If possible, undress the victim and put them in a tub of cold water. Otherwise, cover the patient with a wet bed sheet or towel and start fanning. Or spray the victim with a hose and sponge bare skin with cool water. The goal is to lower the patient's body temperature below 102 degrees. Rehydration is crucial, but do not give the patient alcoholic beverages or stimulants such as coffee of tea. Get the patient to an emergency room as soon as possible, but make sure the cooling process continues all the way to the hospital by keeping the patient's coverings wet.

Although the bodily malfunctions that cause the condition are not completely understood, you can lessen your chances of heat stroke. In hot and humid weather, avoid alcohol, wearing too much clothing, and strenuous exercise. Drink plenty of fluids and stick to a light diet.

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

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