The forecast doesn’t look sweltering, but with clear skies and gradually relaxing stay-home directives, a Memorial Day weekend spent splashing around in a lake or river may sound like just the ticket after months cooped up at home. However, experts advise caution — and not just because of the pandemic.
As outdoor recreation changes in the era of social distancing and masks, one warning remains the same: Washington isn’t the place to take a spring dip.
Popular rivers for recreation in both Western and Eastern Washington get especially cold in spring because they have snowmelt coursing through them.
For example, the water temperature in rivers originating in the mountains, like the upper reaches of the Green River, are in the upper 30s, while the lower portion temperatures are in the 40s, meteorologist Ted Buehner told The Seattle Times in 2019.
Jumping into a river or lake this time of year is like getting into a cold shower, Buehner said; it takes your breath away. When that happens while swimming, it can trigger a gasp reflex that can make a person gulp water and drown. It also can cause cardiac arrest and even paralysis.
“Those who survive in cold water long enough to get hypothermia are lucky. A fall into cold water can drown a person within minutes due to cold-water shock,” Rob Sendak, the boating program manager for Washington State Parks and Recreation, said in 2019.
Cold-water shock can occur almost instantly in water below 59 degrees, which is above average for many of Washington’s bodies of water.
When immersed suddenly in cold water, people may have only minutes or even seconds to call for help or take action to stay alive, Derek VanDyke, education coordinator for the state Parks and Recreation Commission’s recreational-boating program, said in 2018.
“Marine rescue resources are limited and sometimes the closest help is still far away,” Sgt. Mark Rorvik, a marine rescuer at the King County Sheriff’s Office, said in 2018.
During that first minute in cold water, the body is stressed and breathing and heart rate accelerate, Jim Virgin, head of the paddle advisory committee for Washington State Parks, said in 2017.
“That first minute may do you in,” he said.
Over the next 10 minutes, the body draws blood from the arms and legs to the core, quickly draining a person’s ability to swim, Deputy Rich Barton of the King County sheriff’s Marine Rescue Dive Unit said in 2017. Lean people tend to drown more quickly because they don’t have any body fat to insulate them from the cold, he said.
“You have 10 minutes of useful muscular function to save yourself,” he said. “If you’re not wearing a life jacket, you’re not going to survive long enough to get hypothermic.”
Sendak, in 2019, cited U.S. Coast Guard statistics that said 80% of boating fatalities could be prevented if people wore life jackets.
State law requires all vessels, including kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddle boards, to have at least one properly fitted, Coast Guard-approved life jacket for every person on board.
Children 12 and younger are required to wear a life jacket at all times. But life jackets are not only for kids, King County Sheriff’s Deputy Christopher Bedker said in 2019.
Bedker has been stopped on the water by parents who weren’t wearing life jackets, asking him to tell their children why they should be wearing a life jacket.
“It is important for parents to set an example,” he said.
Despite annual warnings, rescuers say this time of year is the start of their busiest season. And with 250 miles of rivers in King County and numerous small, isolated lakes, it can take 60 to 90 minutes for rescuers to get to someone in trouble, Deputy Dan Christian of the sheriff’s marine unit said in 2017.
“We need to be able to find you and you need to be able to survive until we get there,” VanDyke said.
12 things to do if you set out on the water
- Wear sunscreen and sunglasses. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests using sunscreen with a SPF of 30 or higher. Put it on before going outside because it takes 15 minutes for your skin to absorb. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours or after swimming.
- Wear a life jacket that fits properly. Boats should have one for every person on board.
- Check the weather and the marine forecast on the National Weather Service website, weather.gov/sew.
- Tell someone about your plan, including details such as where and when you are going and your contact information. The U.S. Coast Guard offers a free, downloadable float plan at floatplancentral.cgaux.org.
- Leave the alcohol on shore.
- Maintain constant supervision of children, regardless of their swimming abilities or use of life jackets.
- If you’re boating, make sure your vessel is in good working order. If your boat is motorized, test the engine and check your winch rope and trailer safety chains, as ropes rot and chains can become weak and rusty.
- Be mindful of how you put your vessel in the water. Before backing down the ramp make sure the tie-down straps, winch line and safety chain on the bow are disconnected. Roll down the vehicle windows so you can escape if your vehicle joins your boat in the water. Have children and pets wait outside the car before slowly backing down the ramp, where you set the parking brake once in launch position.
- Move at a safe speed at all times, especially in crowded areas. Stay alert and steer clear of large vessels.
- If people are swimming near your boat, make sure an orange flag is raised.
- Be respectful of buoys and other navigational aids. They have been put in place to ensure your safety.
- Make sure more than one person is familiar with all aspects of the boat’s handling and operations.
Seattle Times staff reporters Ryan Blethen, Christine Clarridge and Sara Jean Green contributed to this report, which also includes information from the Mayo Clinic News Network.