Visitors near the Port St. Joe boat ramp may have noticed a curious new addition.
In the last week, a white wooden box full of life jackets of various sizes was erected and placed on-site.
The Life Jacket Loaner Stand has no locks and no price tags.
This is because the life jackets are free to use for boaters whose personal flotation devices are missing or damaged.Boaters may borrow the life jackets at no cost and are asked to return them at the end of their trip for others to use.
The 15 brand-new life jackets, available in children, youth and adult sizes, were provided by Sea Tow Foundation, a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization with a franchise in Port St. Joe.
The Foundation’s goal is to reduce accidents, fatalities and property damage related to recreational boating.
The life jackets were purchased through a grant from the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, as administered by the U.S. Coast Guard. Sea Tow went before the Port St. Joe city commission and received approval for the loaner stand.
Jackets are distributed to local Sea Tow franchises which make them available to boaters free of charge. Many of the life jackets are offered to boaters through the popular Life Jacket Loaner Stands.
These stands are placed in locations where boaters will have easy access to the life jackets, such as marinas and boat ramps.
Established in 1983 by Founder & CEO Capt. Joe Frohnhoefer, Sea Tow is a leader in on-water assistance. The foundation serves members in over 100 locations throughout the United States, Europe, Australia, U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
If a boat breaks down or runs out of gas, members can call Sea Tow for a quick assist on the water.
“Safety is a big deal for us,” said Brandon Davis, an employee with the Port St. Joe branch of Sea Tow. “There’s lots of dangerous stuff going on out there.”
Davis spends most of his days on the water and occasionally interfaces with the Coast Guard.
While many associate boating with harmless fun in the sun, Davis said that accidents do happen at sea and reports that most boating deaths are a result of not wearing a life jacket. For children, ill-fitting life vests can be just as fatal.
By offering free life jackets that boaters can borrow if they find themselves short, Sea Tow is building public awareness to an ongoing problem.
Florida law requires that each person on board a boat have a properly-fitting life vest readily accessible and children under six must wear a life jackets at all times.
In federal waters, children up to 13 are required to wear a life vest.
“Our Sea Tow captains never leave the dock without wearing a personal flotation device, but we see just how few other people wear them out on the water,” said Captain Dennis Douglas of Sea Tow.
“By making it free and easy to borrow a PFD for the day, we think people will make sure they have enough properly fitting life jackets before they go out.”
Since 2008, the Sea Tow Foundation has distributed nearly 15,000 life jackets to boaters across the country.
In addition to use by recreational boaters, the Sea Tow Foundation life jackets have been utilized for towing and marine assistance operations, at boat shows, boat parades, fishing tournaments and water cleanup events.
If successful, the Port St. Joe Sea Tow branch hopes to set up a similar box in Mexico Beach.
The loaner box will be locked at night but boaters in need can call Sea Tow’s 24-hour number at 227-4049.