The most important electrical impulses are between your ears

Floating around for three hours with nothing but a Coleman cooler between you and drowning is enough to make a guy and his friends renew the commonsense boating habits they’ve let slide. We’ve all been there: fishing in a high-sided boat in water calm enough to keep all our mental red flags at rest and our PFDs stowed out of the way. Besides, life jackets are hot during the summer months and, unless they are designed for fishermen and fit perfectly, they restrict our ability to cast, run trolled lines and just plain fish, right?

It’s the same song, different verse for skiers and board riders. What girl buys an expensive bikini just to hide it behind a PFD? Guy or gal, you only need to put flotation on when it’s your turn to get in the water, right?

Ditch bag you say? What’s that and why would I need one on a freshwater lake? And, heck, I almost never cruise out of sight of land when I’m on saltwater ….

A good friend of mine, a guy who has been on and around water all his life, recently suffered a bizarre series of events that ended up with a boat sinking and four people adrift in current five miles from the Lake Michigan shoreline. The hair stood up on the back of my neck when I read the story on his blog because I realized that if it could happen to him it could happen to me. It could also happen to you, and it would be foolish not to rethink how well-prepared we all are for such an emergency.

Solving the issue of PFD comfort is as simple as buying an inflatable vest. New models are as unobtrusive as a pair of suspenders or a fanny pack until you inflate them by triggering a small gas cartridge. They are available at most boating-equipment outlets.

Who wants to fish or ski in the midst of a school of other boats? Not me: I’m going to hunt a spot where I can enjoy myself without another boat in sight. That means nobody is going to see my boat go down or see me waving my arms from the surface of the water. Even if I can swim to an island or the main shoreline, I may still need to call for help.

The first thing we think of when we want to call someone is our cell phone. If it was in its convenient little holster on your belt or stowed in a pocket when you went over the side, it is now a plastic door stop and, no, they don’t make an app to fix that. If you stuck it in a Ziploc bag or other waterproof container before putting it in your pocket you may still be in business — if there is cell coverage where your boat went down.

Checking with local authorities before you hit unfamiliar waters can tell you if they have the ability to GPS-locate 911 calls. If not, a waterproof, floating, handheld GPS unit will provide the coordinates they need to home in on you.

If you are near the saltwater coast or on a navigable waterway, you may be able to reach the Coast Guard or another boater on a handheld marine VHF radio. Some marine VHF portables in the $250 price range (like Standard Horizon’s HX851 or Uniden’s MHS135DSC) include GPS, DSC emergency calling and a built-in strobe light. The radio also makes it possible to talk to the rescue boat or helicopter en route. Waterproof radios that float are the best choice for emergency use.

Freshwater lake and river rescues may fall within the jurisdiction of a county sheriff or county search-and-rescue service. A check with county authorities can tell you if they carry general mobile radio service (GMRS), family radio service (FRS) or maybe even citizens band (CB) two-way radios. Once you know what they use, you’ll know what kind of radio to get. Don’t forget to ask which channels they monitor.

Boaters who plan trips beyond the reach of cell phones and portable radios should have an EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) on the boat or a PLB (personal locator beacon) on their person that will contact the international search-and-rescue satellite network. These can be rented from the Boat US Foundation ( for occasional use.

Devices like the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger and Delorme inReach units notify an emergency center using a satellite telephone network. These units require a subscription but also allow limited texting and other tracking and communication features.

A signal mirror works well to alert a passing aircraft or boat in bright sunshine; simply hold the mirror high enough to shine its bright reflection on the water or ground in front of you and then tilt it to walk the reflection straight away from you to the aircraft or boat. Keep flashing it at your target until they respond or move out of sight.

Under cloudy, stormy or smoky daylight conditions a personal strobe light or a handheld flare are better choices. If there is fuel floating on the water around you, however, do not touch off a flare!

Radios, locator beacons, strobe lights, a flare gun and handheld flares all can be stowed in a compact ditch bag. A couple of water bottles, a few energy bars (in a waterproof container) and a tube of sunscreen will also fit in the bag. Purpose-built ditch bags are available from outlets like West Marine, but you can make one by adding flotation (like bubble wrap rolled up in a zippered pocket) to a brightly colored nylon bag.

Place your ditch bag where you can grab it as you go over the side even if an emergency completely surprises you. A clip-on tether can secure the bag to your PFD or belt, letting you keep both hands free.

Once you get back in the habit of wearing a PFD and start carrying a ditch bag customized for your needs, all that remains is managing the electrical impulses between your ears. Be prepared to keep a cool head, help others do the same and you will be around to tell an exciting story with a happy ending.

NOTE: If you would like to read about my buddy’s intimate three and a half hours with a Coleman cooler, click here.