I will never forget that dark summer night back in August 1985. Dave Herring and I were bowfishing at the upper reaches of Sam Rayburn Reservoir when the wind kicked up and forced us off the water around midnight.

As Herring backed the truck down the ramp, I idled my 10-foot jon boat away from shore and secured my bow and other gear for the trip home. Then I made a bonehead mistake.

I cut the little boat hard to the right and fell sideways into the trough of a king-size roller. Next thing I knew, the boat had capsized and I was treading water in the dark. All of my gear was resting at the bottom of the lake.

Luckily, the boat’s bench seats were filled with styrofoam, so it didn’t sink. I was even more thankful I was wearing a lifejacket. It may have saved my life.

I think about that incident each time I hear about a boat-related mishap on our lakes and waterways, especially when the accident ends in a fatality.

Most boating accidents are caused because one or more operators lacks the knowledge to operate the boat safely, or uses poor judgement in the the process.

A high percentage of fatalities associated with such accidents occur as the result of an individual being thrown overboard without a lifejacket on and subsequently drowning.

“We have no idea how many accidents have occurred and the individual was actually saved because they were wearing a lifejacket,” said Phil Steffan, a boat education specialist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “But of the drowning fatalities we have seen in Texas over the last year, no lifejacket was worn in nearly 100 percent of them.”

Being thrown overboard from a boat can be a traumatic experience both mentally and physically.

The first inclination is to panic. A person’s body undergoes a tremendous amount of stress trying to swim and maintain buoyancy, which at times can result in muscle cramps. The problems are compounded without a lifejacket, which provides enough buoyancy to keep your head above water without effort.

“Factor an injury into the equation and the deck can get stacked against you awfully quick,” Steffan said.

Steffan speaks from experience. A former catamaran racer, he has been thrown overboard more than a dozen times. In nearly every instance, he has sustained some sort of injury on the way out.

One of the most wrenching experiences he can recall occurred on Galveston Bay. He was pitch-poled 12 feet in the air and landed hard in the water. He was tethered to the boat, so he was dragged a considerable distance before he was able to recoup.

“All kinds of things can happen out there,” Steffan said. “You can bust your shins and ribs or hit your head or injure your chest — we see a lot of chest injuries in jet ski accidents. Each time I’ve been injured I felt it was paramount that I had a lifejacket on, because I was no longer operating at 100 percent.”

Texas lakes have have been especially deadly this spring. Since March 1, five separate boating accidents on as many lakes have claimed the lives of seven people.

According to TPWD reports, a variety of factors such as overloading of a vessel, alcohol, weather and inexperience played roles in the accidents. None of the people who died were wearing lifejackets.

“It just doesn’t make sense not to wear one,” Steffan said. “I don’t know about the fallibility of PFD’s, but I know about their success rates. If you are wearing a lifejacket, the chances are real good you will survive a splash.”

One of the most common excuses people use for not wearing a lifejacket in a boat is discomfort from restriction or heat on a summer day. Neither of those excuses hold water anymore, thanks to the evolution of inflatable lifejackets and belts.

Inflatable PFD’s under brand names such as Sospenders, Stearns and Mustang Survival are extremely lightweight and so comfortable to wear that it is easy to forget that you have it in. Law enforcement agencies across the country including TPWD and the U.S. Coast Guard use them, so reliability does not appear to be an issue.

The air bladders inside the jackets and belts inflate when a triggering mechanism activates a concealed carbon dioxide canister. Some jackets are designed to inflate automatically when immersed in water, while manual models activate when the wearer pulls an attached lanyard.

If there is a downside to inflatable PFD’s, it is the cost. Inflatables are substantially more expensive than traditional buckle-up lifejackets. Nor are they legal for use when operating jet skis and other personal watercrafts, Steffan said.

A number of companies offer inflatables in different price ranges. Stearns recently intoduced the Ultra 100 Manual Inflatable. It provides 22.5 pounds of buoyancy upon deployment and sells for around $90.

A good midrange auto-activated vest is the Mustang Eliminator. It provides 35 pounds of buoyancy and sells for around $140. The Sospenders 1F Auto also provides 35 pounds of buoyancy when fully inflated. It sells for about $180.

Once the PFD has been deployed it must be rearmed with a new cartridge to be operable. Rearming kits cost around $15-$30, depending on the brand.

Not surprisingly, Steffan is a big fan of inflatable lifejackets.

“I love mine — you couldn’t buy it from me,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of faith in them. I have deployed hundreds of inflatable vests during demonstrations. Not once have a I had one fail.”