Warming temperatures attract thousands of Washingtonians out to the water every year around Memorial Day. This year, they're expected to have access to more than 247,000 registered vessels, the highest since 2013, raising concerns by rescuers already on high alert in the nation's fourth most dangerous boating state.
It’s the preventable deaths that haunt those trying to save lives imperiled on the region’s rivers, lakes and waterways.
Sgt. Erik Olson of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife Police’s marine detachment tells the story of a grandfather who took four of his grandchildren out shrimping south of Camano Island a few years ago. Their lines got tangled and the little boat flooded, then flipped. Two of the children, as well as the grandfather, died.
The victims were not wearing life jackets and the boat was overloaded.
“The mistakes that cost someone their lives really stick with you,” said Olson.
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Warming temperatures attract thousands of Washingtonians out to the water every year around Memorial Day. This year, they’re expected to have access to more than 247,000 registered vessels, the highest since 2013, according to the Department of Licensing. There may also be up to an estimated 900,000 canoes, kayaks and paddle boards — which don’t require registration — floating around local waterways. Despite annual warnings, rescuers say this time of year is the start of their busiest season.
There are about two dozen boating-related fatalities in Washington state each year, said Derek VanDyke, education coordinator for the state Parks and Recreation Commission’s recreational-boating program. The number fell to 15 last year, but there have already been seven in 2018, he added.
Petty Officer Amanda Norcross, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard 13th District, recalls the death last year of an 81-year-old man and his 75-year-old friend, who died in Depoe Bay Harbor, Oregon. The pair had set out on a fishing trip and their boat capsized in 55-degree water.
Too often, what could have been a minor mishap becomes a tragedy when the most basic of boating safety rules are flouted, Norcross said.
Oversights, such as not wearing a life jacket or not checking marine weather reports, are among the most dangerous, according to Olson, Norcross and representatives of the King County Sheriff’s Office, National Weather Service and the state Parks and Recreation Department.
“We need to be able to find you and you need to be able to survive until we get there,” said VanDyke. Another common mistake is underestimating the effects and speed of cold-water shock, he added.
Cold-water shock can occur almost instantly in water below 59 degrees, which is above average for much of Washington’s waters. It can cause cardiac arrest, a gasp reflex that can make people swallow water or drown, and even paralysis.
When immersed suddenly in cold water, people may have only minutes or even seconds to call for help or take action to help them survive, VanDyke said.
“Marine rescue resources are limited and sometimes the closest help is still far away,” said Sgt. Mark Rorvik, a marine rescuer at the King County Sheriff’s Office.