As weather heats up, water safety becomes important

May 31, 2014

By Neil Pierson

New: May 31, 10:14 a.m.

King County sheriff’s deputies Chris Bedker and Charlie Akers were dressed in wetsuits, thermal outerwear and lifejackets when they fell into the waters of Lake Sammamish last week.
Most people who fall into the 50-degree water aren’t as prepared.
Members of the sheriffs’ marine/dive rescue unit – including Bedker, Akers, deputy Keith Bennett and Sgt. Jim Knauss – held a demonstration at Bellevue’s Vasa Park May 19 as a reminder of water-safety tactics that become increasingly important as summer nears.
The best way a person can prepare for being on the water is to wear a lifejacket, officials said. Of the 17 drowning fatalities in Washington last year, 10 of them involved human-powered vessels like rowboats, canoes and kayaks, said Derek VanDyke, boating safety manager for Washington State Parks.
“Lifejackets are imperative,” VanDyke said. “People that have boating accidents, it’s not the plan that they’re jumping in the water. It’s the unexpected.
“If you’re not wearing your lifejacket, you go underwater, you have that gasping reflex, and you suck down a quart of water into your lungs. And that could cause you to drown almost immediately.”
During the sheriffs’ demo, Bedker and Akers showed how difficult it is to rectify the situation after falling into the water.
One scenario involved a small aluminum rowboat, the other a two-person canoe. In both cases, once the vessel was flipped and the occupants were in the water, it was practically impossible for them to get back in the vessel.
With the surface temperature of Lake Sammamish hovering in the mid 50s, anyone not wearing a lifejacket is likely to succumb quickly, deputies indicated.
Hypothermia and cold-water shock are two very different things, Knauss said, and it doesn’t take long for shock to take its toll. When a person falls into cold water unexpectedly, their body triggers involuntary gasping and muscular fatigue.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a good swimmer or a bad swimmer – the shock of the cold water oftentimes is what causes you to fail at something you’re rather good at when the water is warmer,” Knauss said.
“Hypothermia is not what kills people in the water – it’s drowning,” VanDyke added. They don’t even get to hypothermia before they perish …
“The second phase (of cold-water shock) is you lose all strength and mobility and dexterity in your limbs, so that you can’t even get yourself back out of the water into your boat.”
Deputies demonstrated the difficulty of putting on a flotation device in the water. Vests can be cumbersome and difficult to throw, so people on a boat or on shore may not be able to easily save a potential drowning victim.
Getting the lifejacket wet and tossing it underhand can make for more accurate throws to people in the water, deputies said.
This year, there have been five drowning deaths around the state so far. In four cases, the victim wasn’t wearing a lifejacket. Knauss noted a January incident in King County in which a man went out on boat in the evening without a lifejacket.
“It was probably dusk when he set out, then dark quickly after, and the boat was found the next morning without an occupant,” he said.
A popular notion police are trying to combat is that lifejackets are ill-fitting and unstylish. People often have them on their boats but don’t use them. Deputies noted they’ve recovered boats from the bottoms of lakes with lifejackets still attached to the seats.
Modern vests aren’t the “titanic orange lifejacket” that adults picture from their childhoods, VanDyke said. They’ve become increasingly lightweight and comfortable, come in a variety of colors, and are specially designed for specific activities such as kayaking, water skiing and fishing.
Having a “float plan” and letting others know you’re on the water is also an important safety precaution, VanDyke noted.
Above all, deputies said, the message they’re trying to send is that lifejackets rarely fail.
“I have yet to recover a drowning victim off the bottom of a river or a lake that was wearing a lifejacket,” Bedker noted.

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