Stewart Shafer 1999-08-22


Anchorage Daily News, Sunday, August 22, 1999

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. Coast Guard.

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.