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Don’t let warm weather fool you, Washington water is dangerous

Every year, a similar story unfolds around Western Washington. Warm weather arrives and people head outside, and onto (and into) the water. That’s when Sergeant Mark Rorvik begins to worry.

“Every time we have weather like this, early in the year, I just cringe, because I’m waiting,” he told KIRO Radio. “You know, ‘Are we going to get through the weekend without a drowning?’”

“We come across people on days like today, it’s sunny out and in the 70s, and they are wearing a swimsuit and a t-shirt, maybe they are on a paddle board,” Rorvik said. “We stop them and say ‘do you realize how cold the water is? … what happens if you fall in?’ …. They look at the outside air temperature and say ‘Oh, it’s warm’ and they don’t go on the water the way they should in a prepared fashion.”

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Rorvik is with the King County Sheriff’s marine and rescue dive unit. They are busy this time of year, when the temperatures begin to rise. Temperatures are expected to rise into the mid-80s around Seattle over the coming weekend.

Despite the sun beaming down over Puget Sound, the waters in the region remain cold. Even if the surface temperatures are tolerable, things get colder the deeper you go. So when people go out in a canoe, or on a paddle board, they are actually inches away from danger.

“A lot of people tend to forget that even though the air temperature is warm, the water temperature we have around here is still very, very cold. Which can be very dangerous if you end up in the water,” Rorvik said.

That includes dangers like cold water shock. This is when the human body reacts to cold water – generally under 60 degrees. At this time of year most, if not all, the lakes in the Western Washington region are under 60 degrees.

“The body can’t control it, it’s involuntary no matter how great a swimmer you are,” Rirvik said. “And you are going to gasp. If you gasp and you inhale water there’s a good chance you will end up drowning. You are going to inhale that water and you are going to sink and you are going to drown. That’s the first that is going to happen when you fall into cold water.”

What to do

That first minute you get into the water, you need to get yourself under control. Rorvik says to not panic. Then you have about 10 minutes to self-rescue yourself. After that, hypothermia begins to set in and you lose the ability to save yourself. Basically, blood goes to your core to keep organs warm. This means that arms and legs aren’t going to work.

That advice, however, is largely for lakes and Puget Sound.

“When you are talking about rivers, then you are introducing a whole other set of circumstances,” Rovik said. “You are dealing with current, logs, or tree branches across the river. That adds a whole other factor of danger as opposed to if you fell off a canoe in Lake Washington or Lake Sammamish.”

“Nobody has any business being in those rivers right now,” he said. “It’s too cold, the water is moving too fast. My advice is to stay out of the rivers.”

Sunny days and ice cold beer

And let’s not forget what many people love to bring to water-based recreation – beer. Or in Washington’s case, alcohol and marijuana. It is illegal to operate a watercraft under the influence. Beyond that, alcohol can be worse on the water.

“A lot of people don’t know that when you are consuming alcohol on water, on a vessel, the motion of the water … that actually will increase the affect of alcohol on somebody when they are on the water, on a boat. So you can become more intoxicated, more quickly, and more significantly than if you were drinking on dry land.”

Other advice

The good news is that drownings during hot weather in King County have gone down over recent years. Rovik says that they don’t know exactly why, other than their efforts to get the word out.

Rovik advises that people wear a wetsuit and a life jacket on the water. Also, bring along safety devices such as a waterproof VHF radio. Don’t go out alone. Let somebody know where you are going, when you are coming back, and where you enter the water.

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