Rowing safety and PFDs

I was in Washington, D.C., recently having dinner with several vessel operators and friends. We were discussing the increasing numbers of recreational users on our navigable waterways — kayakers, paddle boarders, even small electric boats — and the growing potential for allisions and collisions. When the conversation turned to racing skulls, I discussed my long-held position that even racing scullers should be required to carry personal flotation devices.

To my surprise, there were several accomplished rowers at the table, and their argument was simple. They maintained that they had no need for PFDs because they were accomplished swimmers, physically fit and able to make good safety decisions should their scull overturn.

Why wouldn’t the scullers, at a minimum, feel the need to carry PFDs in their boats to provide a level of protection should the unthinkable occur?

Those at my table who argued against PFDs said that a chase boat is typically close by in an emergency. While this is true, does the chase boat have the capacity to efficiently deal with multiple rowers in the water? Are all of these rowers experienced swimmers and physically fit? Finally, how long would it take a chase boat to pick up all the rowers from the water? I believe strongly that certain safety measures, even at minimal levels, are prudent.

Commercial passenger vessels such as mine are U.S. Coast Guard inspected and certificated. We do not ask passengers if they are good swimmers, and we do not evaluate their level of fitness before they board. Sure, many of them may be good swimmers and in great physical shape. However, we are still required to carry personal flotation devices for them in the unlikely event that there is a problem. Imagine if I had a conversation with the Coast Guard claiming that my vessels do not need to carry PFDs because my passengers are good swimmers? 

If you are on a commercial boat of any kind, that boat should carry PFDs. The same should go for all recreational users of our waterways, even racing scullers.

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

1 Comment

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    I was in a small sailboat regatta years ago on Lake Erie. The Jet 14 fleet was having a blast in the 5′ seas until one by one they all capsized. Jet 14’s are older boats and eventually all the chase boat could see was 2 heads and the bow of each boat. They were typically not wearing their PFDs. Our fleet had to abandon our racing because the chase boat needed us and the committee boat to rescue all the jet 14 sailors. In that case, you called it- if more than a couple rowers went into the water, it could be a real mess for the chase boat and ultimately something bad could happen. I agree- every boater should have appropriate floatation readily available.

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