Program makes life jackets available for free

by Melissa Gute

MOUNTAIN ISLAND – Mountain Island Marine Commission Chair Kari Lanning knows the importance of wearing a life jacket while on water.

Gaston County Police Officer Doug Hord, right, puts a life vest on Matthew Chiappetta, 12. The safety program took place May 16 on the Riverbend boat access on Mountain Island Lake. (Melissa Gute/MI Monitor photo)

Her husband and brother-in-law lost their lives on a fishing trip in the Atlantic Ocean in 2005 when their 25-foot cabin cruiser experienced a mechanical difficulty and sank. Their life jackets were trapped in an air hole in the front of the boat. The only survivor, Lanning’s other brother-in-law, floated back to shore with a type-IV personal floatation device.

“It’s one thing to have a life jacket,” she said, “but you have to wear it.”

But for those who want to enjoy Mountain Island Lake and don’t have a life jacket, they will be able to use one through the new Life Jacket Loaner Program.

The program was launched May 16, just in time for Boater Safety Week, which took place May 18-24.

The program is a partnership between the marine commission and Duke Energy. Visitors can borrow life jackets from kiosks at the Riverbend, Neck Road and Latta Plantation boating access areas and return them when they’re finished. Each kiosk has 12 jackets – four child, four youth and four adult sizes.

Gaston County Police Officer Doug Hord explained the importance of wearing the correct size life jacket. When pulling someone, especially children, out of the water, their back is against the boat, and they’ll be pulled up by the jacket, he said.

“If it’s too big, all you’ll pull up is life jacket,” he said. “They will go right through that. The armholes are too big. The neck holes are too big. So it’s very important you get the right size.”

Anyone under the age of 13 is required to wear a jacket by law, and each watercraft needs to have at least the same number of life jackets as passengers.

Mountain Island Lake is the third lake that Duke Energy has partnered with to facilitate a life jacket loaner program. The other two are in South Carolina.

“The feedback has just been phenomenal,” said Steve Jester, Duke Energy vice president of water strategy, hydro licensing and lake services. “That’s why we’re very interested in expanding it. If something works well, you want to do more of it. That’s certainly the case with this program.”

Craig Keese helped start the programs in South Carolina. His son and grandson drowned in a storm on Stockton Lake in Missouri in 2010. Neither was wearing a jacket. To help other families avoid similar tragedies, he started a foundation to offer jacket loaner programs.

“At the end of the day, you want everyone to go home,” Lanning said. “You don’t want anybody to have a tragedy, and this is one way to possibly prevent a tragedy or prevent an accident.”

The marine commission and Duke Energy also partnered to launch “Pack it in, Pack it out” initiative to remind people to be responsible with their trash.

Duke Energy provided 42 signs that were placed around the shoreline.

The areas with the biggest litter problems are close to the dam, where people camp, Lanning said. It’s not those who live on the lake that leave their trash behind, but those who visit the lake.

The signs are a friendly reminder that “if people bring their trash with them, they need to take it with them,” she said.

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