Now is a great time to refocus on aquatics safety

Cub Scout practicing aquatics safety
Photo by Roger Moran

Different organizations give it different names, but when it come down to it, it’s all about aquatics safety.

The Red Cross calls May Water Safety Month.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls this week Healthy and Safe Swimming Week.

The National Safe Boating Council says this week is National Safe Boating Week.

At the BSA, we call it a good time to review what we’ve been doing for more than a century — helping kids safely participate in aquatic activities in line with the methods of Scouting.

And it all starts with a pretty basic reminder: Wear your life jackets, people!

The United States Coast Guard estimates that 85% of boating-related drowning victims were not wearing life jackets.

“That’s how important it is to wear a life jacket,” says Terry Budd, chairman of the BSA National Aquatics Subcommittee and the 2023 National Scout Jamboree aquatics lead. “It’s like wearing a seat belt in your car.

“Some states don’t require you to wear them, but for everything we do in Scouting on the water, you have to wear a life jacket.”

Budd joined us during last week’s aquatics-intensive episode of #CubChatLive. You can watch the discussion below in its entirety, and read on for more do’s and don’ts of Scout aquatic activities.

What is Safety Afloat?

The Safety Afloat and Safe Swim Defense are aquatics safety trainings available in the BSA Learn Center. (Log in to My.Scouting, click the BSA Learn Center image, then click Expanded Learning, then Program Safety, and find the courses listed on the Program Safety page.)

Safety Afloat has been developed to promote boating and boating safety and to set standards for safe unit boating activities. Safe Swim Defense will provide you a plan for conducting Scouting swimming activities in a safe manner.

Come on. I’m a grown adult and a very strong swimmer. Do I really have to wear a life jacket?

Absolutely yes, you do. Life jackets are required for boating activities in Scouting including – but not limited to — canoeing, kayaking, row boating, rafting and tow sports. They’re also required if you’re swimming in clear water more than 12 feet deep, in turbid water more than 8 feet deep or in flowing water.

Kayaker showing aquatics safety by wearing a life jacket
Photo by Michael Roytek

Fine. I think I’ve got an old life jacket lying around here somewhere. I’ll just wear that one, OK?

Possibly. Life jackets must fit properly with U.S. Coast Guard approval for the activity in which they’re being used. Some life jackets are not approved for water skiing, wakeboarding, tubing, personal watercraft or whitewater paddling. Check the life-jacket label for performance, turning ability and warnings.

Is there any situation in which we don’t have to wear life jackets?

Life jackets need not be worn when an activity falls under Safe Swim Defense guidelines — for example, when an inflated raft is used in a pool or when snorkeling from an anchored craft.

For vessels more than 20 feet in length, life jackets need not be worn when participants are below deck or on deck when the qualified supervisor aboard the vessel determines that it is prudent to abide by less-restrictive state and federal life-jacket regulations. All participants not classified as swimmers must wear a life jacket when on deck underway.

Scout swimming
Life jackets are not required for basic swimming activities in shallow, confined water. Photo by Tom Copeland

How can I tell if my life jacket fits properly?

  1. Put the life jacket on.
  2. Buckle all straps and tighten all zippers. If you can’t buckle all the straps and close all the zippers, the life jacket is too small. Find a bigger one, then proceed to step 3.
  3. Lift your arms straight up in the air.
  4. Have someone pull your life jacket upward.
  5. If the life jacket can be pulled up over your ears, it’s too big.
  6. Tighten all straps and zippers. If it can still be pulled up over your ears, find a smaller sized jacket.

What kind of aquatics activities do Cub Scouts do?

The BSA’s aquatics safety rules say Cub Scouts of all ages are allowed to go swimming under the supervision of a mature and conscientious adult age 21 or older who:

  • Understands and knowingly accepts responsibility for the well-being and safety of youth members in their care;
  • Is experienced in the particular activity;
  • Is confident in their ability to respond appropriately in an emergency;
  • Is trained and committed to BSA Safety Afloat and/or Safe Swim Defense.

It is strongly recommended that all units have at least one adult currently trained in BSA Aquatics Supervision: Swimming and Water Rescue, or BSA Lifeguard to assist in planning and conducting all swimming activities.

Wolf Cub Scouts and older can participate in tubing activities in gently flowing water.

Lions and Tiger Cub Scouts can ride as passengers in paddle sports, including canoeing, kayaking, pedal boats, rafts and row boats; older Cub Scouts can fully participate in those activities.

All Cub Scouts can snorkel in confined water.

What about older members of the BSA’s youth programs?

Aquatics activities available to older youth include scuba, surfing, snorkeling in open water, sailing, motor boating and paddle sports in Class III or IV whitewater rapids.

My child had to take a swim test to go to summer camp. What’s that all about?

All persons participating in BSA aquatics are classified according to swimming ability. This is a key element in Safe Swim Defense and Safety Afloat because it determines how they can participate in aquatics activities.

For example, operation of any boat on a float trip is limited to youth and adults who have completed the BSA swimmer classification test. Those not classified as a swimmer are limited to multi-person craft during outings or float trips on calm water with little likelihood of capsizing or falling overboard.

Great! Where can I learn more?

Click here to learn about the BSA’s aquatics programs. Click here to learn more about aquatics safety.


About Aaron Derr 418 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.