Life vests and racing shells

In April, a 19-year-old Northwestern University student drowned when he fell from his racing shell during practice on North Shore Channel in Chicago. According to news reports, the university rowing team was practicing when the student fell overboard. One rower and a coach jumped in the water to try to save him but could not find him.

In St. Paul, Minn., earlier this summer, the scene repeated itself when a solo rower lost control of her racing shell and struck a busy commercial dock. The racing shell overturned and the rower spilled into the cold Mississippi River. The rower was ultimately rescued but the effort required numerous individuals and a rescue boat.

In previous columns, I have consistently expressed concern about the safety of racing shells that have no regulatory requirement for rowers to wear life vests. My critics have argued that the competitive nature of the sport prevents the wearing of life vests and the experience of those who row makes it unnecessary. My position is that no matter how experienced a rower is, or how competitive the sport is, life vests help prevent drownings.

There are a variety of inflatable life vests currently on the market that are small in size and do not interfere with a rower’s mobility.

When you consider that these racing shells are often operated on crowded waterways with heavy recreational and commercial traffic, the fact that rowers do not have life vests on board the shells is hard to understand.

My company operates U.S. Coast Guard-certified passenger vessels that are required to carry life jackets for both passengers and crew. In addition, these life vests must regularly pass inspection. We work in cooperation with the Coast Guard to maintain safe operations and protect the safety of passengers and crew. Given this, why are we turning a blind eye to ensuring the safety of those who operate racing shells on our waterways?

To me, the answer is simple. Life vests help save lives, and everyone should be required to have them.

About the author

Capt. Alan Bernstein

Alan Bernstein, owner of BB Riverboats in Cincinnati, is a licensed master and a former president of the Passenger Vessel Association. He can be reached at 859-292-2449 or


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    I agree with Captain Alan. Although it is a very competitive sport, there are many choices out there for light compact PFDs. If the sport is concerned with them being a hindrance then they should agree on a number of suitable options and then enforce a rule that all rowers must be equipped with one so everyone has a the same hindrance if you want to call it that. It would be fair and equal for everyone.

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    A valid and sober point, Captain.

    To compound the problem with rowing/sculling shells, has anyone ever seen proper registration displayed on the hulls? I certainly never have in Illinois or Wisconsin where it’s a state law.

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    What’s next Alan? Surfers wearing life vests, racing swimmers during a triathlon or paddle boarder racers from Catalina to Manhattan Beach? Some sports have risks associated with participation and I believe the participants typically understand the risks. The recent regulation requiring Stand Up Paddle Boarders to carry life jackets is another example of our Nanny State running (protecting) our lives. If a company is renting Stand Up Boards to unwitting tourists, by all means there should be a life vest required, however, the individual who paddles regularly for fitness and fun should not be required to have a life vest.

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      The regulation for stand up paddle boarders to carry a life jacket is from 2008. Not exactly a new law.

      A belt pack inflatable life jacket can cost less than what most people spend in 6 months for coffee at Starbucks. Seems like a small investment and minimal inconvenience to potentially save your life…

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    Peter Becker Ph.D. (Oceanography) on

    Dear Captain Bernstein,

    I to operated commercial vessels where we required our staff to wear work vests on the company vessels as well as jsrd hats while heavy overhead loads were present. We were laughed at routinely by the other shellfish harvesters in the in industry, invluding workers for the larrgest company in the State, untill the Washington State Labor and Industries inspectors showed up, at our request, and handed out 75 x $250 citations to the offending workers…. not so funny then and our 12 workers on the bay that day hooted in derision.
    That said, I am also a Level 2 US Rowing Coach. We operate under strict US rowing safety regulations and that includes both seasonal practice capsize drills in a pool and manditory safety launches accompanying rowers at all times when under my supervision.
    It is easy to criticize that which one has little or no understanding of.
    I would also say that it appears you have never rowed in or been in a racing shell,
    or you would not do blithely assume as you do, what you do.

    We operate in many modes in rowing from recreational to Olympic level training. We insist that masters level rowers (over 26 ) have a pfd onboard in easy reach and many actually wear the vests designed for the masters level and recreational level of the sport although they are not USCG approved. The USCG PFD’s are worthless for even that level of sliding seat rowing and were never designed for use at the high levels of exertion necessary for masters and recrestional rowing as we practice them.
    At the same time we insist on a safety launch with USGG approved PFD’s for every rower is on the water and near the boats at all times. Dedicated safety launch operator must be equipped with a USCG approved work vest as a full Type 1 PFD would prevent him or her from being able to assist anyone. They must also be trained first responders in CPR and maintain that certification along with State motor boat operators licenses.
    I have been coaching and rowing shells since 1989, a paid hand on ocean going racing sailboats since 1960, and sailing the all worlds oceans since the age of 5. This included Trans Atlantic, Trans Pacific passages, rounding all the major Capes including Cape Horn under sail and a being a member of a diving safety team in the Pacific, Arctic and Antarctic waters, so I am not without brosd experience on and under the sea.

    There has been some instances of university rowing putting rowers out and stretching safety a bit too far in the interest of getting competitive rowers up to speed to compete with those from
    more Southern ice free areas. Infreqiently accidents occur, but sonce they can result in elimination of rowing programs, they are few and far between.
    Rowing in Japan has the worst safety record in the world and an atone time an international record was maintained on line. It lead to significant tightening of safety in rowing world wide so things are far improved over just 10 years ago.

    Competitive sports are inherently risky. Rowing is no exception and waviers are required of all US Rowing participants so rowers operate under informed consent.
    It is the coaches job to enforce safety standards for organized activity under US Rowing regulations, but that said, there are many independent recreational rowers who violate commonsense every time they go out, and just same as kayakers, canoeists, PWC operators and recreational fishermen, who operate under their own rules or ignore them
    As they choose.
    Recreational and competitive rowing, as practiced under US Rowing rules l, has an enviable safety record that exceeds any industry record I am aware of, and I have worn both hats.

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    Captain Gordon Marsh (USCG Retired) on

    Agree completely. inflatable PFDs should be required during any practice session. I could see exempting actual races if there are sufficient rescue vessels.

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