Stewart Shafer 1999-08-22
Anchorage Daily News, Sunday, August 22, 1999
PERSONAL WATERCRAFT USER GOES MISSING
For hours and hours after Stewart Shafer disappeared while riding a friend's personal
watercraft on Bear Lake outside Seward, volunteers searched the rugged shoreline
for a sign that he was alive. Family friend Dennis Perry said 20-year-old Shafer,
a fishing guide and outdoorsman, could, if need be, survive in the woods. But all
signs point to trouble on the water, not in the woods.
About the time some lakeside folks were preparing Monday dinner, Mr. Shafer set
out on an Arctic Cat Tiger Shark 770 on the two-mile-long lake. He was not wearing
a personal flotation device, a practice which is strongly recommended by the U.S.
By midweek, Alaska State Troopers had suspended a ground search.
Now, pending a miracle, family and friends must adjust to life without Stewart Shafer,
who might be alive today if he'd simply donned a life jacket. This theory is bolstered
by the fact that a switch that kills the Arctic Cat motor if the operator falls
off was activated.
Alaska's cold waters are too often underrated by even long-time residents with outdoors
savvy. The water's cold can literally take one's breath away on impact, paralyze
one's muscles and cause deadly hypothermia in a relatively short time. In each of
these cases, the operator may hit the water with nary an injury and be fully conscious
-- and die within seconds or minutes of the cold.
What a horrible way to die -- and so preventable.
In drowning after drowning in Alaska waters, facts show that the person who drowned
would likely be alive if he or she had only taken the time to don a personal flotation
device, or PFD.
Federal boating regulations, which cover personal watercraft, require that every
person who goes out on the water have a life jacket "readily available," according
to Coast Guard boating safety specialist Sue Hargis. Stowing a personal flotation
device in the hatch of a personal watercraft is not acceptable by federal standards.
Unlike other states, Alaska has a minimum set of laws to govern watercraft use.
In fact, ours is the only state that does not have a comprehensive safe-boating
law to guide policy and regulations. Other Western states, including Oregon, Washington
and Utah, require that personal watercraft users wear PFDs, for example. Many have
either minimum age requirements and/or require an operator's certificate for minor
riders or drivers.
Even with a comprehensive law and better regulations, Stewart Shafer might still
have drowned. Nonetheless, his death underscores the fact that many Alaskans have
a long way to go in making good choices while plying the state's waterways. To do
less is to risk not living to see tomorrow.