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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

How to stay safe while on Puget Sound, other state lakes and rivers

Derek Mullin, right, and his son Caleb, 13, return to the rental concession under the Division Street bridge after a paddle up and back in July 2017 on the Spokane River. It was their first time on stand-up paddleboards for the Spokane father and son and the elder Mullin admitted to falling off the board once during the trip. “It’s not hard,” said Derek Mullin. “It’s just the balance.” With more people heading out on the water, boating safety experts across the state are stressing the importance of preparedness and caution.  (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)
By Christine Clarridge Seattle Times

As the weather warms up, Washington residents are sure to turn to water activities like boating, swimming, paddling and all sorts of water sports.

And this year, as the cost of gas soars, safety experts expect participation in affordable paddle sports to reach new heights.

With more people heading out on the water, boating safety experts are stressing the importance of preparedness and caution.

“It’s not what you see in the movies,” said Derek VanDyke, education coordinator for the Washington state Parks and Recreation Commission Boating Program. “A lot of drownings happen very quickly.”

Even really good swimmers risk drowning in Washington’s cold waters. People who fall into the water may find themselves gasping involuntarily, sometimes taking in water on that first breath.

What people don’t count on, said Sgt. Richard Barton of the King County Sheriff’s Marine Rescue Dive Unit, is that the shock of cold water causes an involuntary physical reaction that has nothing to do with how well prepared or fit people are.

While Puget Sound-area waters are always cool, they’re colder than usual for this time of year, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Ted Buehner. All that late-season mountain snow means rivers and waters they fed are still icy.

For current water temperatures in Washington lakes, visit

Safe Boating Week, which runs from May 21 to 27, is aimed at encouraging boaters to make basic safety a habit: wear a life jacket, carry the right equipment, know navigational rules and don’t boat under the influence of intoxicants.

Of those, wearing a life jacket is the best thing you can do to help yourself survive, said VanDyke.

Last year, 13 people lost their lives in Washington while participating in recreational water activities, according to Washington’s recreational boating accident data. Of those victims, 77% were not wearing a life jacket.

From 2015 to 2020, Washington state fatality accident data shows that 63% of victims were not wearing a life jacket; 85% were on vessels less than 19 feet long, and 44% of fatalities occurred on human-powered vessels.

The thing about life jackets is you have to be wearing them, not just have them on your boat, said Barton. He estimates that fewer than 10% of the people he sees on the water are wearing life jackets.

“We had eight fatalities we dealt with last year. All of them were not wearing a life jacket,” said Barton.

In Washington, all vessels (including canoes, kayaks and stand up paddle boards) must carry at least one properly fitted U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person on board. However, only people being towed behind a boat, people on motor-powered personal watercraft and children 12 years or younger on moving boats 19 feet or smaller have to wear them.

Barton said most people try to stay dry when they’re out on the water, but that’s a mistake. Getting wet, splashing water on your face and body and letting yourself get used to the temperature can minimize cold water shock, he said.

In addition to the basic safety precautions, Lt. Alex Cropley, commanding officer of Coast Guard Station Seattle, pointed out a few new regulations and asked that people properly secure and label small watercraft.

“There are so many paddlecraft and other small vessels that are unregistered, and when they are not secured and go adrift, we have to search,” he said. Please help save time and resources by putting contact information on your watercraft.

Experts offer several tips for staying safe on the water this summer:

- Know your limits: Swimming in open water is harder than in a pool. Be cautious of sudden dropoffs in lakes and rivers, where swimmers can tire faster.

- Wear a life jacket and make sure it is properly fitted.

- Check river or stream conditions with the U.S. Geological Survey at 253-428-3600 ext. 2635.

- Try to take two forms of communication, such as a cellphone, whistle, VHF radio or flares.

- Don’t drink alcohol and don’t smoke marijuana while boating.

- Don’t overload boats with more people than a vessel has capacity to accommodate.

- Check the weather and the marine forecast on the National Weather Service website,

- If paddleboarding or kayaking, dress appropriately for cold water and wear brightly colored clothing; wear a personal locating device and carry a whistle.

- Let friends know your planned route and when you expect to be back. File a float plan with the Coast Guard, which now has an app dedicated to the recreational boating community. Learn more about the app at

- Write your name and contact information on small paddlecraft. The Coast Guard often finds derelict watercraft but can’t tell if someone is missing or a craft simply broke away from a dock.

- If you find yourself in trouble, get out of the water at any cost.

- If you’re a bystander, throw a struggling person something to cling to; even a cooler or a seat cushion could help.

- If you’re unable to help someone floundering in the water, be a good witness and provide a starting point for searchers.