Nathan Loutsis stumbled off a boat on a recent sunny afternoon and plunged into Lake Washington’s frigid water, sending a shock through his system.
The 19-year-old was wearing a life vest, so he bobbed up to the surface but still struggled for air as he tried to adjust to the lake’s temperature, low despite the warm day. He eventually positioned himself upright in the water, took a few more breaths, then looked up and smiled.
It was a water safety training day, and Loutsis is one of many young adults in the King County Sheriff’s Office explorer program, meant for youth interested in a career in law enforcement.
On this warm Wednesday, Loutsis was helping the Sheriff’s Office’s marine rescue unit with its water safety training by simulating falls into the water, then following a sergeant’s instructions on how to self-rescue.
“You don’t feel cold right away,” he said after pulling himself out of the water. Even though his fall was planned and he was expecting the cold, “it was still a shock, so my first reaction was to take short, shallow breaths. … It’s just hard to steady my breathing.”
It’s a training the marine rescue unit does every summer, as people flock to the state’s lakes, rivers, beaches and pools in an attempt to cool off. Summer is also when the region’s number of drownings increase without fail.
Last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed many toward outdoors activities, King County officials counted 33 drowning deaths, twice as many as in 2018. Almost 70% of those deaths occurred in “open water incidents,” such as lakes and rivers versus pools and bathtubs, and more than half involved alcohol or drugs, according to Public Health — Seattle & King County.
“We’re sadly expecting that to happen again this summer, as society opens up and people resume their lives,” said Dr. Steve Mitchell, the medical director of Harborview Medical Center’s emergency department. “They’re excited to do it, but hopefully will do it with less risky behavior.”
King County has already seen 12 drownings this year — though the numbers are preliminary — including a 33-year-old Bellevue man who drowned last week after diving into Lake Washington to save his young child, and a 21-year-old man who died in the Green River near Enumclaw in May after trying to rescue his girlfriend who was caught in the rapids.
This year, medical and public health experts are hoping to get water safety guidance out early.
Preventing water accidents
Tony Gomez, manager of injury and violence prevention for the county’s public health department, said this week that one of the easiest things swimmers and boaters can do to prevent injuries or deaths is wear a life jacket.
In Washington, residents without one or without one that fits can stop by life jacket loaner stations at marinas, near boat ramps, paddleboat launch sites or various state parks. Life jackets there are free and you can return them to the station at the end of the day, Gomez said.
“I’ve looked at drowning cases … for 40 years and all too often, I’ll see the case and say, ‘If only they wore a life jacket,'” he said. The county has found children are 17% more likely to wear a life jacket when their parent or supervising adult wears one, he added.
Alcohol usually also plays a large part in preventable water-related tragedies, Harborview’s Mitchell said. In fact, studies have shown alcohol is believed to be involved in more than half of adult drowning deaths in the United States, he said.
“It changes your judgment and it changes your ability to coordinate your muscles,” Mitchell said. “It makes you a worse swimmer, even if you feel like you might be a better swimmer.”
One other step that could make a significant dent in water accidents is swimming at beaches with lifeguards, Gomez added. Unfortunately, he said, a lot of the county’s heavily used beaches will not have lifeguards this year, due to budget cuts and a lack of applicants for lifeguarding jobs.
Still, about 34 of King County’s beaches and pools will have lifeguards on duty this summer, including beaches at Seattle’s Green Lake Park, Madison Park, Madrona Park, Magnuson Park, Mount Baker Park and Seward Park.
Lifeguards will also be stationed at Renton’s Kennydale Beach Park and Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park, Kent’s Lake Meridian Park and Federal Way’s Steel Lake Park.
A full list of this year’s lifeguarded swimming areas is available at the county’s website.
You’re in the water — now what?
Benjamin Callahan, a deputy with the Sheriff’s Office, said when teaching people what to do after they’ve fallen into the water, he and his team often urge them to remember the “1-10-1 rule.”
“The first minute, get your breathing under control,” Callahan said. “It’s a lot like meditation. … What we’re trying to avoid is involuntary gasping, or panic breathing.”
The next part of the 1-10-1 rule focuses on the 10 minutes after you’ve fallen into the water, which is dedicated to “functional self-rescue,” Callahan said. Ideally, this would mean grabbing onto a rope or pulling yourself back up onto a boat.
After that, people generally start losing their fine motor skills and have up to one hour — the last part of the 1-10-1 rule — before they become unconscious and start experiencing hypothermia, he said.
However, water rescuers are generally more concerned about cold-water shock, rather than hypothermia, especially in Pacific Northwest waters.
According to state parks officials, cold-water shock occurs within the first three to five minutes of accidentally falling overboard into cold water, which they define as anything below 70 degrees. Once that happens, you could experience involuntary gasping, hyperventilation, vertigo and panic, officials say.
“This is the one that puts you in harm’s way faster,” sheriff’s Sgt. Rich Barton said while out on the water.
When you fall into open water unexpectedly, the first thing that often sets in is panic, Harborview’s Mitchell said. Irregular breathing follows, which is why one of the first things medical teams in the ER do for a drowning patient is try to stabilize their breaths, Mitchell said.
“There are people who underestimate how cold the Puget Sound is — around 55 degrees, which is too cold to swim in without protection,” Mitchell said. “… You get more exhausted quicker, even if you’re a strong swimmer.”
While safety experts recommend always being aware of water temperatures before swimming, Pacific Northwest waters are usually warmest in August and coldest in January. Most surface water temperatures can be found with a quick web search, but temperatures 5 to 8 feet down can be much colder and those temperatures are not as easy to find.
For current water temperatures in any Washington lake, visit lakemonster.com.
Rivers can be even more frigid, especially the Snoqualmie and Skokomish rivers, which become filled with melted snow during the summer that makes them “cold, swift and deadly,” Gomez said.
The bottom line? People should still have fun while recreating in our region’s bodies of water during the summer months, which this year could be even warmer than usual. But there are steps we can all take to keep each other and ourselves safe.
“It’s such a beautiful place and we love it so much,” Callahan said. “But people forget we are not designed to survive in [Pacific Northwest waters] naturally. You can’t rely on your instincts and your instinctual wisdom to keep you alive in this environment.”