As sunshine and 70s become more common this time of year, so do the spontaneous trips out to enjoy the warmth out on the water. And with that comes the busiest time of the year for water rescuers.
Sadly, May is the month with the highest amount of water-related fatalities in the Northwest and this year is no different.
The Coast Guard reports nine people have already died this year alone -- well ahead of the pace of a typical year. And unlike most years which seem to have a roughly even split between deaths via boat and via personal watercrafts like kayaks and paddleboards, this year has been heavily weighted toward paddle board, rafting and kayak accidents.
I recently got to meet with several officials from the Coast Guard and other boating safety agencies and they had some excellent tips to stay safe this summer -- many are so simple, yet so important. And while many of them you've likely heard before, it was a valuable learning lesson for me as to why these tips are so important.
* Wear a lifejacket -- it really does save lives. Here's why:
For those going on the water, this mantra is akin to "don't run with scissors" but there is a good reason why it's important. Many people might think, especially if they're in calmer, inland waters, "Oh, if I fall off a boat or kayak, I'm a good swimmer. I can easily just make the short swim back to the boat."
But the waters around here are very chilly -- 50-53 degrees or so in Puget Sound; even colder in rivers with snow melt. It might be 80 degrees outside but when you hit the frigid water, your body will go into initial shock. You'll take a big, sudden gasp of air, followed by potential hyperventilating.
For some, this initial shock can have you take a chest full of water and make you quickly drown. This shock phase lasts about a minute, but during this time, your boat or kayak or whatever, may begin to float away in the current. By the time you regain your wits, the boat may be farther away. Or, if you figure you'll just have a lifevest under the chair and grab it if you fall in, well, that's not going to help if you can't move or swim to go retrieve it.
That leads into your next challenge: your body's battle to keep itself warm. Over the next 10 minutes, you will lose the effective use of your fingers, arms and legs for any meaningful movement, according to the Coast Guard. Pretty soon you'll have what rescuers call "swim failure" -- your muscles and limbs will be cramping and unable to move enough to keep you afloat. Without a lifejacket, this is when most drownings occur.
While many might think that hypothermia could cause your doom -- rescuers say actually most could survive an hour in the cold waters here - maybe longer depending on your body type and health. This is where the lifejacket is crucial because it buys you this critical hour to be rescued. Having a life jacket will keep you afloat during that initial shock phase and the 10 minute "body shutdown" phase.
The Coast Guard calls this the "1-10-1" rule -- 1 minute of initial shock, 10 minutes of body shutdown and 1 hour to survive in the water before hypothermia.
Also, make sure you have a lifejacket that fits. The Coast Guard warns that especially for children, many parents try to "buy the next size up" so that the kids can grow into them, but if the lifejacket is too large now, it'll slip right off over their heads when they hit the water. The Coast Guard says they do frequent demonstrations asking a parent to put on a lifejacket for their child, think its secure, only to have an officer walk up and simply pull the lifejacket off over the kid's head.
* Have a VHF Radio, not just a cell phone.
This is the best way for your call for help to be heard by a number of people nearby. Lt. Ben Crowell, who commands the U.S. Coast Guard base in Seattle, says to think of a cell phone conversation -- that's only going to be heard between you and the person on the other end. But if you use a VHF radio, your call for help goes out over the region, likely alerting someone close by to your need for rescue and could make the difference. The Coast Guard actively monitors Channel 16 and will be there to help if you get in serious trouble.
* Have a plan -- make sure everyone knows about it.
Make sure before you go out on the water, be it boating, sailing, or paddle boarding, that people know when you're supposed to be back -- and just as critical, alert them to any changes. Crowell says the Coast Guard is full of stories of launching a rescue to search for someone "overdue" who had instead, canceled the trip, forgot to tell anyone, and had been sitting at home watching TV as Puget Sound is criss-crossed by rescue helicopters and boats looking for you. On the other hand, if you're by yourself, you didn't bring a VHF radio, and are now alone in the water, they'll know if something bad did happen sooner.
* Take a class!
Boating safety classes are already a good idea, but did you know you can also take safety classes for personal watercrafts like kayaks, canoes and paddle boarding? Many people just think it's easy to just go push a kayak out into the water, but even fairly light winds can create some fairly turbulent waters, and do you know what to do if you spill over? Just Google around and you can find them. A few hours here can make a big difference later.
* Check the weather -- especially the winds!
Things change around here, especially in the summer where a 90 degree, sunny, calm day at 3 p.m. can turn into a raging 30 mph wind at 7 p.m. when a marine push comes racing in. Afternoon seabreezes kick up to, so be sure to check the marine forecast from NOAA.
Also be wary if you see in the forecast a hot day followed by a much cooler day -- usually those cool downs come with the strong punches of wind in the evening of the final hot day of the heat stretch, especially our days that are 85+. If the forecast shows Monday is going to be 89, Tuesday's 93 and Wednesday's 74 -- be wary of sudden winds Tuesday evening.
* Get the Coast Guard App (Coming soon)
Coming May 16, the Coast Guard will be launching a new app for Android and iOS that will have a host of important boating safety information as well as a way to send a distress call. you can find out more what the app can do here.
* Have fun!
That one's easy! Oh, and stay safe!