WA lakes dangerously cold this year for water sports, law enforcement warns

May 19, 2022, 7:54 AM | Updated: May 20, 2022, 11:00 am
Marine Unit...
Deputy Ben Callahan with the King County Sheriff's Office's Marine Unit patrols Lake Union. (Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio)
(Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio)

This weekend we’re finally getting the spring weather we’ve waited for after a long winter — and that means Lake Union, Lake Washington, and the Puget Sound will fill up with boaters, paddleboarders, and others wanting to get out on the water.

But the King County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit dreads the annual spring warmup.

That’s because as soon as the weather turns, people die on the water.

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

Derek Van Dyke, an education coordinator with the Washington State Parks Boating Program, said in this part of the world, no matter how warm the air is, our water stays cold enough to be fatal.

“Any water below 70 degrees is cold water and can cause hypothermia and shock,” he said. “Most of our bodies of water never get over 70 degrees in Washington state.

Even Lake Washington in August may be 72 on the surface — but a lot colder the deeper you go.

Cold water shock causes your limbs to freeze up as your body focuses on protecting the vital organs. Within a few minutes, even a strong swimmer won’t be able to move enough to get to shore.

In some people, cold water shock can cause the heart vessels to contract as their heart rate spikes up, which can lead to a heart attack.

Sergeant Rich Barton rescues people on the water with the King County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit — where he sees a lot of cold water shock.

“This is a very rapid onset — it can take seconds. You have basically 10 to 15 seconds of, ‘Oh my God, I just went from 90 degrees to 50,'” Barton said. “And your body is in shock, it’s going, ‘What do I do?’ So I gasp — I take that initial big breath. And then you ingest water. And then you go down.”

And, of course if you’re panicking, you’ll use any energy you have that much more quickly.

Whether people fall or jump, whether they’re on a yacht or a paddleboard, Van Dyke said there’s one thing that the vast majority of people who die on the water have in common.

“Last year, we lost 13 people boating — the year before, 28,” he said. “77% of our boating fatalities are not wearing a life jacket.”

There are many reasons why people don’t wear life jackets — besides just wanting to look cool and get a tan.

For one, life jackets are expensive. Good ones may cost almost as much as a paddleboard itself.

Also, people may not realize that it’s the law. Everyone in Washington who is on a boat must at least have a life jacket on board — though the safest idea is to wear one at all times.

In fact, Lieutenant Alex Cropley, commanding officer of the Coast Guard’s Station Seattle, said some paddlecraft users are legally required to wear them.

“One of the biggest segments where we see [no lifejackets] is the paddlecraft users,” he said. “Those people on kayaks, paddleboards, canoes don’t realize that they’re not only required to have that life jacket on board, but also, if it’s an inflatable device, be wearing it.”

You are also required to have a whistle so you can get help if you’re out too far.

If getting a life jacket is a problem for you, the State Parks Boating Program is here to help. Van Dyke says they have set up stands where you can borrow a life jacket for the day at 200 locations across the state — including popular water sport spots like Deception Pass State Park and the beaches along Lake Washington.

“We want to make life jackets accessible,” Van Dyke said. “Not being able to afford a life jacket is not an excuse for not having one. We will get you a life jacket.”

Another big problem is a lack of education, especially for people using paddlecraft. Van Dyke said, unlike motorized boaters, paddleboarders and kayakers don’t need to take an exam and earn their boater education card before they get on the water — despite repeated attempts by legislators to pass such laws.

“We have education mandatory for motorized boaters, but we do not have such a program for non-motorized,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that you should not be educated.”

So there are a lot of rookies out on the water with no experience — in fact, meteorologist Ted Buehner said paddleboard and kayak sales have shot through the roof the past couple of years, as the pandemic has had us all wanting to get outside.

“It’s a lot cheaper to do that, easy access, they’re selling right off the shelves as we speak, and you’re going to see a lot more of those kinds of vessels out on the water starting this weekend,” Buehner said.

He predicts the large chain stores will be sold out of paddlecraft by Memorial Day.

“One other key point that’s different this year? Gas prices,” Buehner said. “You’re going to see a lot more human-powered boating this year than in the past because people just don’t want to pay that $4-plus-a-gallon of fuel for those motorboats.”

Unfortunately, Buehner said, what is also unique about this year is the water is more dangerous than ever.

“We’ve had a wet spring. We’ve added more snow into the mountains,” he said. “That snowmelt process, as we head into the summer, is going to keep those river temperatures in the 40s.”

Van Dyke with State Parks put that in perspective.

“Think about a swimming pool,” he said. “Most swimming pools, you jump in, and people think they’re cold. But they’re really above 80 degrees.”

What can help? Sergeant Barton said if you plan to get in the water, at least give yourself an idea of what you are in for.

“We tell people to splash yourself,” he said. “Get yourself wet. Actually splash your face and see what that effect is going to be with 58-, 60-degree water on a 90-degree day.”

But the best thing you can do is educate yourself.

The State Parks Boating Program website has free resources where you can learn the basics of boating and paddleboarding and quiz yourself.

State Parks is also piloting a boater education program for kids for the first time this summer.

The education process doesn’t have to be super involved — but Van Dyke says just putting in that little bit of time to learn the basics may end up saving your life.

“It’s not a toy, the water is cold, be prepared,” he said. “Know the weather before you go, know the water conditions before you go. Have the proper, legally-required safety equipment — the whistle, the life jacket. Wear your life jacket, and then don’t overestimate your skills.”

Follow Nicole Jennings on Twitter or email her here

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WA lakes dangerously cold this year for water sports, law enforcement warns