WAYLAND TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — To keep boaters safe this summer in West Michigan, the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office is handing out free life jackets — but only if deputies catch you without one.

It’s part of what’s known as the Save-A-Life program.

“First and foremost, we want to make sure everybody is safe,” Todd Wagner, marine administrator for the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office, said.

“One of our personnel had stopped a boat, and (it) had six different children on board, and not a single life jacket for them,” Wagner said. “The parents said, ‘Well, they’re pretty good swimmers.’ It’s a big educational moment.”

For the past three summers, the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office has partnered with the West Michigan Lakeshore Association of Realtors to host the program.

It was conceived in 2020, after Lake Michigan had a record-breaking 57 drownings.

“What people don’t realize is, you could just be totally relaxed, enjoying your time on the water, and something just totally out of the blue happens,” Wagner said.

According to the sheriff’s office, deputies started with 150 life jackets at the summer’s outset.

“We’ve given out half that stock already, give or take,” Wagner said. “But half those boxes are empty.”

When it comes to Michigan law, boaters are required to have a life jacket for each person on board.

“Anything that you are on the water — if it’s a boat, if it’s a vessel, a paddleboard, you have to have a life jacket on board,” Wagner explained. “You do not have to wear it, but you have to have it on board, and it has to be readily accessible.”

Wagner said it comes down to one simple rule: Be prepared.

“Anytime you embark on any type of journey out on the water, make sure that you have a life jacket,” he said.

More information about life jacket rules is available online.