As I write this, I am sitting at my desk and wearing a life jacket, which might seem a little weird, but it’s national Wear Your Life Jacket to Work Day (May 19). This is the day before National Safe Boating Week begins, which is a yearly reminder of the importance of being safe while on the water. Its primary focus is on wearing PFDs, which is understandable since 428 of the 626 boating fatalities in 2015 were drownings. But one statistic rarely gets mentioned and poses a far greater danger to boaters: skin cancer fatalities caused by exposure to the sun. According to the National Cancer Society, an estimated 13,590 Americans will die this year of skin cancer, largely caused by exposure to UV rays. Although no statistics are kept to ascertain how many of these are boaters, it stands to reason we are at greater risk. Fortunately, there are ways to stay sun safe this summer.
There are two main types of UV rays: UVA rays penetrate deep into the dermis and cause the most long-term damage, while UVB rays affect mainly the surface skin, but only UVB rays are considered in the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating of sunscreens and clothing. And the ratings themselves aren’t linear. For instance, SPF 15 blocks 93 percent of UVB rays while SPF 30 blocks 97 percent. The first key to protecting yourself on a boat is to apply a heavy layer of water-resistant lotion or spray and repeat it often, especially if you go swimming.
Keep a Bimini top up to provide an oasis, but remember that water reflects UV rays, so you can still get burned. Don’t rely on cloud cover, which only prevents 20 percent of UV rays from getting through. The most obvious way is to cover up, but sometimes that’s not as effective as it seems. Surprisingly, a cotton T-shirt may have an SPF 5 rating or less. Most sports clothing items, such as fishing shirts, have an SPF 30 rating or higher. Long-sleeved shirts made from non-wicking material are best, whereas cotton shirts are the worst because of their tendency to wick water far up the sleeve if the cuffs get wet. Widebrim, full-coverage hats are better than baseball caps.
Don’t forget your eyes. Merely having dark lenses does little to protect them. Look for sunglasses that block close to 100 percent of UV rays. The Maui Jims I wear have a level 9 rating (99 percent protection). One of the latest weapons for sun protection for anglers is the full face masks that usually have SPF 30 ratings or higher and are surprisingly comfortable.
Last, every couple of years get checked by a dermatologist. Go at least once a year if you’ve had skin cancer and go immediately if you have a mole that is irregular in shape or color, larger than a pencil eraser or exhibits recent signs of change. Some boaters have checklists, and protection from the sun should be at the very top.