In the Unlikely Event

Editor’s Note: In this monthly outdoors feature, we’ll investigate the potential hazards of outdoor adventures — what they are, how to prepare for them and how to survive worst-case scenarios in the backcountry and in life! Have a specific situation you’d like to know more about or troubleshoot? Let us know at outdoors@seattletimes.com and we’ll investigate.

The water is so inviting. And in the Seattle area, it’s everywhere. You can snap a scenic picture just about anywhere and there’s probably sunlight twinkling off water in the background. As we thaw out and head into spring, you might even venture out and onto or into the water in some capacity.

Fall into one of our bodies of water unexpectedly, though, and it’s one of the deadliest situations you can find yourself in while adventuring in the Pacific Northwest. 

“People forget that it’s inherently dangerous,” said Deputy Ben Callahan, of the King County Sheriff’s Office Marine Rescue Dive Unit. “We are not designed to survive in an aquatic environment like that. But we’re around it all the time. Right now, the season is changing and we definitely need to be aware that anything involving falling into water is a potentially life-and-death situation.”

Open water is always a looming danger for recreational adventurers, but it’s uniquely dangerous in the Pacific Northwest where water temperatures rarely rise above 60 degrees year-round. Your body’s reaction to cold-water immersion is always predictable and sometimes immediately fatal.

“It’s kind of like stepping into a shower when it’s cold, you take that big gasp,” said Dan Shipman, recreational boating program specialist with the U.S. Coast Guard. “The same thing happens to you when you fall in, and if you’re not prepared for that, you can actually hit the water, gasp and drown.” He said the shock of the cold is so powerful that people have had heart attacks after falling overboard.

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The sad truth for our region’s water-rescue emergency responders is there aren’t a lot of survival stories to tell. The water — river, lake, sound and ocean — is almost always so cold and unpredictable, there’s little time to find and rescue those who get themselves in trouble (often in a hard-to-reach place).

“You have 10 minutes to self-rescue,” Callahan said. “So to swim to a boat and haul yourself out, to swim to a dock and haul yourself out, to call for help, to do something to save yourself. Because after 10 minutes, you lose what we call gross motor movement. You’re effectively not physically able to help yourself. Your muscles all stop working and shut down.”

There’s still time, though, Callahan said. He and his colleagues follow the simple one-10-one rule when it comes to survival in water that’s colder than 70 degrees: You have a minute to catch and regulate your breath and calm down. Then you have about 10 minutes to orient yourself and self-rescue, meaning climb back aboard your vessel, swimming to shore or finding something to help you stay afloat.

If that’s not possible, you’ve got about one hour to get out of the water some way or another before hypothermia begins to have a real impact. Rescuers have pulled survivors out of the water after longer periods, but each minute over an hour steepens the odds.

There were 24 recreational boater deaths last year in Washington state, according to Washington State Parks. Thirteen were paddlers and, where data was known, only one operator had completed formal boating education instruction. In coastal waters alone, the Coast Guard responded to 1,035 reports of a person in the water along the Washington and Oregon coasts, or about 16% of all their call-outs, from 2016-20.

Most of those folks probably were surprised by their predicament, Callahan said: “No one ever plans on falling in the water. I mean, literally, no one’s out there like, ‘Oh, today’s the day I’m going to fall into the water.’ It’s just not crossing people’s minds.”

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Paradoxically, anyone who spends any time on the water at all will fall in. People end up in that predicament in all kinds of ways. Kayaks flip, canoes are swamped, small watercraft capsize in rough seas, planes make emergency landings, folks misjudge the weather and paddle boarders simply lose their balance.

“People when they learn [paddle boarding], they’re like baby giraffes,” Callahan said. “They’re out there with weak knees, wobbling all over the place. And it doesn’t take much for a situation where you’re buying a new toy at the sports store down the street, and then out playing around on Lake Union or Lake Washington, to turn into a life-and-death situation really fast.”

Surviving comes down to preparation — the things you do before setting out, Shipman and Callahan agreed. Are you a strong swimmer? Don’t go near the water if you’re not. Increase your swimming fitness, if possible, and consider doing the polar-bear thing. Wading into the water at your favorite sound or lakeside park is a good way to practice regulating your breath to combat that initial shock response.

Are you wearing a life jacket? You should be. Along with general buoyancy, the life jacket helps you combat the shock of falling in by popping you back to the surface, then keeping your head above water while you regulate your breathing. Are you in a dry or wet suit? If not, are you wearing clothes that might help you retain heat or that dry quickly once you haul out of the water? Do you have an emergency beacon? The more times you say yes — especially to the life-jacket question — the higher your chance of survival.

“Someone can fall in with a life jacket on and they can be out in Lake Washington for 30, 40 minutes, and it’s not going to kill them — but they’re not going to be happy about it,” Callahan said. 

The easy way to avoid that scenario is to go into your weekend warrioring with a buddy, a float plan and an education. Washington State Parks is holding its annual “Spring Aboard” educational campaign March 21-27 for boaters and paddlers. And there are instructional videos, classes and clubs for virtually anything you want to do online. Many retailers offer classes as well. Find an experienced friend and invite yourself along on their next adventure.

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Right this minute is the time to start, Shipman said. Emergency responders worry amateur adventurers pent up by the pandemic are about to hit the wilderness in large numbers. 

“There are a lot of people getting into outdoor recreation now with all the COVID restrictions — buying boats, buying canoes, kayaks — and they don’t really have any basic or preliminary education,” he said. “If you do go into the water, how do you re-enter the boat safely? All those little things that you do to mitigate risks.”

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