Drownings up this summer, says King County Sheriff’s Marine Unit

Jul 6, 2021, 2:38 PM
Lake Union is a busy lake, full of boats, paddleboards, and even seaplanes. That means anyone on the water needs to make sure they are trained well. (Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio) Deputy Ben Callahan with the King County Sheriff's Office's Marine Unit patrols Lake Union. (Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio) One of the King County Sheriff's Office's Marine Unit vessels passes through the Montlake Cut. (Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio) Officers dock in Lake Union to investigate the cause of a recent boat fire. (Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio)

On any of these sunny summer days, looking out at Lake Union or Lake Washington, people can be seen on yachts, sailboats, kayaks, and paddleboards, all enjoying Washington’s beauty. But there is a dangerous undercurrent to the recreation.

In just the last two weeks, the King County Sheriff’s Office’s Marine Unit has seen about a dozen drownings, and in the last week has assisted in about 100 rescues.

“In years that we have it get really hot at the beginning of summer, we see more drownings in rivers, and we see more people on the water, so we see more drownings in the water,” said Deputy Ben Callahan, a member of the Marine Unit.

The Marine Unit goes around Lake Washington, Lake Union, and other local lakes and rivers enforcing boating law, educating people on water safety, investigating accidents, and — especially in recent weeks — rescuing people in trouble.

Water safety tips from Washington State Parks for pandemic boating boom

Unfortunately, when summers start out with hot weather early on, and rivers and lakes are still icy with melting snowpack, the water can prove especially deadly. Being suddenly engulfed in frigid water can cause the heart vessels to contract, while the heart rate and blood pressure spike up.

“The first thing is cold water shock,” Callahan said. “In some people, it can create a cardiovascular response that just causes a heart attack. And so falling into cold water just in and of itself can be a life-threatening situation.”

Deputy Callahan says even for a strong swimmer who has prepared to fall in, being in 60-degree water for several minutes can soon cause your limbs to stop working, as your body focuses on protecting its vital organs.

Add in a panicked response, and you’ll soon burn what little energy you could have used to try to get back to shore. Not to mention, when people panic, they may inhale water, which can also cause a person to sink.

This is especially dangerous if you jump or fall off a boat in the middle of a lake like Lake Washington, Callahan said — where the water is deeper, and tens of degrees colder the deeper you go.

The biggest mistake people make on the water, he said, is not being prepared for what to do if things go wrong.

“What people oftentimes miss is that water is not an environment we’re designed to survive in naturally,” Callahan said. “Anytime we go into wilderness, or into an environment we’re not designed to live in, it takes planning, and people don’t plan ahead.”

Some of that is due to social media.

“They think they’re going into what they saw on Instagram, … when we look at how social media portrays wilderness sports in general, it looks beautiful and peaceful and picturesque,” Callahan said.

But in reality, lakes and rivers aren’t always as ideal as they look in the photos. Callahan noted that boating, paddlesports, and swimming can all be considered types of extreme sports that come with risks.

When people aren’t prepared on the water is when they are in a recreation mindset, focusing only on having fun. That can put a person at a disadvantage in a crisis.

“When we get caught off guard, it’s that vacation mindset,” Callahan explained. “We’re behind the curve, we’re trying to adapt to something we don’t know how to adapt to, we’re panicking.”

Sergeant Rich Barton with the Marine Unit often sees the “all play and no preparedness” attitude at the marinas along Lake Washington.

“They’ll be gathering up, walking down with coolers full of everything, coming prepared — but to have a good time, to recreate,” he said. “And we would like to have them be mindset-prepared.”

So how can you get in the proper preparedness mindset?

Deputy Callahan’s biggest tip is to always wear a lifejacket.

“The one thing that would change a lot of scenarios is if people had lifejackets on. I’m a strong swimmer and I wear a lifejacket when I go kayaking or paddleboarding,” he said. “And I don’t do it because I’m planning on drowning. I do it because I know there are things I can’t control.”

Barton sees a real mix of those with and without lifejackets on paddleboards.

“People with lifejackets on are having just as much fun as those without — just the tan may have been not as good,” he joked.

You should go through the state’s official boat inspection checklist to make sure you have all the essentials on board — like a fire extinguisher, visual distress signals, and a noise-producing device like a horn or a whistle.

“Checking the weather, planning ahead, looking for things that you don’t know — and that’s where I think the classes are important, education is important,” Callahan said.

Even though you don’t need a Boater Education Card for a kayak or paddleboard in the state of Washington — and a bill to change this failed in the Legislature this year — officers recommend you still take a course to learn the basics.

The Washington State Parks noted earlier this year that with social distancing, more people than ever are getting out on boats. That includes people rushing out to buy paddleboards and kayaks, which come with the lowest price and time commitment, thanks to not requiring a Boater Education Card.

Callahan said they commonly rescue paddleboarders who buy the board and go on the lake without knowing what they’re doing. They may not be drowning, but they get out too far and can’t fight the wind back to shore.

Also important is to take it slowly.

“If you’re going to buy a paddleboard, maybe take it to a pool first or a lifeguarded beach, and play around with it in the swimming area for a while,” Callahan said.

And taking it slowly goes for getting in the water, too.

“What we do when we have to get into a swift water environment or get into a cold river is splash water in your face,” he said. “Before you get in, if you get your face wet, at least your body has a sense of what you’re about to shock yourself with.”

Finally — be careful what you buy online, and invest properly in safety. Officers say while it is great that boating is becoming more accessible, the most affordable boats are often the biggest culprits. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

“On Craigslist, someone buys a really cheap boat, $1,200 for this old Boston whaler, that sounds like a great deal — until you realize it was $1,200 because the engine breaks down five minutes into your voyage, and now you’re stuck out in the middle of the lake,” he said.

Ultimately, the Marine Unit wants you to get out on the water, have fun, and relax — but you can relax even more knowing that just in case things don’t go to plan, you know what to do.

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Drownings up this summer, says King County Sheriff’s Marine Unit