Recent drownings illustrate risks of open-water swimming

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When the temperature heads toward 90 and the sun feels like it’s burning a hole in your back, there’s nothing more refreshing than a dip in a cold lake or pond. But as enjoyable as it may be, summer swimming comes with its fair share of risk.

“The weather warms up, people are excited to get back into the water, but the water is very cold right now and people are overconfident in their abilities,” says Don Strick, public information officer for Clark County Public Health. “When the water is flowing quickly, as it tends to do this time of year, it can cause hypothermia. And hypothermia can sneak up on you very quickly.”

On June 7, a 17-year-old Vancouver teen, Julian Norton, drowned while swimming in the Lewis River near Woodland. He told his friends that he was getting very cold and having trouble swimming seconds before going underwater and disappearing. Norton’s family later said that they heard he was only 10 feet from the shore when he succumbed to the cold river water.

“That’s the thing about swimming in cold water,” says Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County’s director of public health. “At the beginning, you’re going to feel cold, you may be shivering, but once your body temperature drops you end up becoming confused. This confusion can occur within minutes. And by the time you’re really in trouble, when you can’t swim anymore, you are going to be confused and not realize what’s happening. When you’re hypothermic, you become confused and drowsy. It doesn’t matter how strong of a swimmer you are, because you can’t swim at that point. That’s why flotation devices are so important.”

Norton’s drowning was one of 10 that occurred in Southwest Washington and Northwest Oregon between Memorial Day weekend and June 18. All of the victims were male. The majority, six of the 10, were teenagers. And all were swimming in open water – rivers, lakes or streams. According to research conducted by the Oregonian newspaper, the early-season drownings represent the highest number of open water deaths in the region in more than a decade.

“It’s going to be a long summer,” says Deputy Todd Baker, of the Clark County Sheriff’s Marine Unit. “Normally, the weather is still a little cool right now, in the mid-60s, and rainy. But summer came early this year. The temperatures are in the 80s and 90s, but the water is still very cold. And people aren’t prepared.”

So how can you keep yourself and your loved ones safe this summer while still enjoying the region’s abundance of natural swimming areas? Experts suggest the following:

Avoid the high-risk spots

There are more than a dozen popular swimming spots scattered throughout Clark County, but not all of those spots were created equal. Avoiding the most dangerous swimming holes is step one for keeping safe this summer.

“You can drown anywhere,” says Baker, the sheriff’s deputy who has patrolled the waters in this region for nearly 20 years. “But some areas are more dangerous.”

Baker says swimmers should avoid all of the swimming spots on the Columbia River and in the Lucia Falls area.

“You may have a child playing on a sandbar in the river, and they fall into deep water and sink like a rock,” Baker says. “You will have no chance to save them.”

Rivers in this region are particularly dangerous due to their swift-moving currents and very cold water. County officials warn against swimming at the following Columbia River locations: Frenchman’s Bar Regional Park, Captain William Clark Regional Park and Wintler Beach Community Park.

Swimming in the Lewis River can be a very dangerous proposition. Last year, in early July, two men drowned in different spots along the Lewis River on the very same day. Donald Kemper of Ridgefield drowned in the North Fork Lewis River. His body was found downstream of his small fishing boat and he was not wearing a life jacket.

At the same time that emergency crews were responding to Kemper’s drowning, a Vancouver man, Sean Margetis, jumped into the East Fork Lewis River near Moulton Falls, in between Battle Ground and Yacolt, and never resurfaced. Divers recovered Margetis’ body at the base of the falls in about 10 feet of water.

At Paradise Point State Park near the La Center I-5 exit, swimmers on the East Fork Lewis River are at risk of cold water and fast moving currents. During the summer months, a sandbar juts out into the river. On the edge of the sandbar is a steep dropoff into cold, swift-moving water. A Paradise Point park ranger, who did not want to be identified, said he sees families with small children playing on the sandbar.

“They’ll be out there playing, with no life jacket on, and this area is affected by the tide, so when the tide comes in, the water gets deep, fast, and they can be pulled right in,” the park ranger says.

In July of 2009, a 28-year-old Ridgefield man was swimming with his girlfriend in this very spot, in the East Fork Lewis River at Paradise Point State Park, when he went under and vanished. Divers found his body in deep water hours later.

Swimming is allowed at Lewisville Regional Park in Battle Ground, on the East Fork Lewis River, but officials have posted warnings about swimming at the county’s oldest park: “The river can have swift currents and water depths can vary. Park users swim at their own risk. Parents are urged to be vigilant watching children near the water.”

Lakes and ponds come with their own set of risks, including deep, cold water and underwater vegetation hazards, but are typically more safe than rivers for summertime swimming. Locally, Klineline Pond at the Salmon Creek Regional Park in Vancouver, is considered one of the safer swimming areas, thanks to its roped-off, guarded swimming area. The county provides lifeguards at Klineline from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., daily, from July 1 through Labor Day. There are no lifeguards at Battle Ground Lake or Vancouver Lake, but there are designated, roped-off swimming areas at both of these local lakes.

Wear a life jacket

The statistics on life jackets paint a stark picture – 9 out of 10 people who have drowned while boating or swimming would be alive if they’d had a life jacket on.

“You have to wear a life jacket,” Baker says. “They will save your life.”

On the life jacket issue, experts are completely united.

“Statistics show that 88 percent of drowning victims were not wearing life jackets,” Melnick, the county’s health officer, says. “If you’re in moving water and you don’t have a life jacket on and you become hypothermic, you’re most likely going to drown. It doesn’t matter how strong of a swimmer you are.”

Getting people to don a life jacket – or even put a life jacket on their young children – is a continuous battle. Even at areas like Paradise Point State Park, which has a free life jacket station, with all sizes of life jackets available for swimmers and boaters to borrow, the majority of people still go without the life-saving flotation devices.

“I think we need a celebrity to make life jackets cool,” says Strick, of the Clark County health department. “If teens see their friends doing it, then maybe they’ll put one on.”

Baker likens life jackets to seatbelts in cars – it will probably take a massive education campaign to turn people’s views around and make life jackets a must-have for the majority of boaters and swimmers.

“They are making them (life jackets) more comfortable and there even models that you wear like a fanny pack, that inflate when you’re submerged,” Baker says. “It’s like wearing seatbelts. It took time to catch on, and that’s what will happen with life jackets.”

Mike Jackson, division chief for Clark County Fire and Rescue, says educating parents and swimmers about the necessity of life jackets can be challenging.

“It’s a struggle,” Jackson says of getting people to put on a life jacket, even one of the free loaner jackets provided at stands throughout the area. “We try to educate the youth in the schools and that’s often a good way to educate the parents. They go home and talk to their parents about it. Unfortunately, when there’s a drowning, that provides awareness.”

Clark County Fire and Rescue has partnered with several nonprofits like Safekids and local Boy Scout troops to collect life jacket donations and stock loaner stations at areas like Paradise Point near La Center, Daybreak Park in Battle Ground, and the Horseshoe Lake in Woodland.

“We’re always looking for other sites where life jacket stations are needed,” Jackson says. “But, right now, we’re just trying to maintain the ones we have.”

Baker encourages people to don a life jacket or vest when they’re boating, too. In Washington, all children age 12 or younger must wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket on boats less than 19 feet in length, unless they are in a fully enclosed area. In Oregon, the law includes boats of all lengths.

As smaller vessels like canoes, paddleboards and kayaks gain in popularity, Baker says the number of drownings associated with these vessels also is increasing. Of the nine boating fatalities that have occurred in Washington state this year, eight of the deaths involved canoes, kayaks and/or rafts.

“Wearing a life jacket would have prevented the majority of those deaths,” Baker says.

Some tips for wearing a life jacket:

• Make sure it fits correctly. Life jackets come in a variety of shapes and sizes. For children, make sure that the life jacket is snug and will not pull over their ears. Children who wear life jackets that are too big are in danger of sliding out of the jacket during a water emergency.

• Don’t just have the jacket in your boat. Wear it at all times — when you’re on the dock, when you’re getting in and out of the boat and while you’re boating on the open water. The same goes for swimming and/or fishing from the shoreline. It is especially important to make sure children are wearing a life jacket whenever they are near open water.

• You can get a 25 percent discount on all regularly priced life jackets in stock at any Big 5 Sporting Goods store in Washington, now through Sept. 30, 2015. To print the coupon, visit www.seattlechildrens.org/classes-community/community-programs/drowning-prevention and look under the “Life Jackets: Get Information and a Coupon” section.

Leave the alcohol behind:

Dr. Melnick, the county’s public health director, says he may sound like a broken record sometimes, but he doesn’t care.

“Being intoxicated in the water is not a good combination,” Melnick says. “Alcohol use is a particular problem (with summer swimming and boating). A lot of people get in the water and they’ve been drinking … what they don’t realize is that alcohol increases your risk of hypothermia.”

Alcohol dilates blood vessels at the body’s surface and causes people to lose heat faster than they would if they hadn’t consumed the alcohol.

“Among adolescents and adults, 70 percent of the deaths associated with water recreation involved alcohol,” Melnick says. “You see teens and adults floating down the river, drinking alcohol, not wearing a life jacket … it’s just never a good idea. It’s very dangerous, especially when you consider that confusion sets in within minutes when you’re in cold water. If you’re already impaired, whether by alcohol or marijuana or any mind-altering drug, it’s going to make that confusion even worse.”

Final safety tips:

Knowing where to swim, wearing a life jacket and avoiding alcohol and other drugs are the top three tips for staying safe this summer, but local experts say there are other things you can do to keep yourself and your loved ones protected in the open water:

• Don’t dive into shallow water or unfamiliar swimming holes

• Never leave children unsupervised in or near water, even for a few seconds. “They can disappear just like that,” Baker says. “Drowning can happen swiftly and silently.”

• Designate a responsible adult to watch the swimmer from the shoreline. This “watcher” should be a good swimmer, have access to some sort of rope or branch to throw to a swimmer in distress, and should be vigilant in keeping an eye on the people in the water and not distracted by reading or looking at their phone.

• Avoid panicking if you find yourself unable to swim in open water. Although Melnick says this can be tough due to the confusion that sets in within minutes of swimming in too-cold water, Baker says there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of survival. Instead of trying to swim to shore, which drains your body of heat, try to get into a float and call for help. Baker recalls a case he worked on last year, which involved a grandfather, father and 13-year-old grandson/son. The teen was panicking, and submerging his father, who was trying to save him after they fell out of their fishing boat. “The father had to let go, and watch his son drown,” Baker says. “If they had been wearing life jackets, this wouldn’t have happened.”

• Know your own limits. If you’re starting to feel tired, get out of the water and rest. Rehydrate by drinking water and give yourself some time to regain your body heat and energy before reentering the water.

• Educate yourself. Baker urges people to enroll in boater safety classes, which are offered by the Clark County Sheriff Marine Patrol Deputy and U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary every fourth Sunday of the month, now through October. The classes cost $10 per student and the exam qualifies you to receive your boater card for Washington and Oregon. For more information or to register, visit http://a1300708.wow.uscgaux.info/ or call (360) 574-5044 or (360) 609-2630.

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