- Prepare for immersion. Either dress for it, with a neoprene wet suit or waterproof dry wear, or know how you’re going to get out of the water if you go in. Practice reentering your kayak or remounting your SUP board. Do a regular overboard drill on your sail or power boat. Otherwise, stay within 1 or 2 minutes’ swimming distance from shore… much less than 100 yards.
- Know the area you’re boating. Check charts and seek local knowledge about currents, obstructions, commercial traffic, and weather patterns. Plan potential bailout points; many of our beaches aren’t easy landings, and even if you get safely ashore, you may have to walk for miles before you reach help.
- Check weather and tide predictions. A marine forecast from NOAA will include more accurate wind predictions than your local weatherman. Again seek local knowledge to understand the relation of wind, tide and current in specific locations.
- Leave a float plan with someone you trust. Include your intended boating location, and descriptions of your boat, clothing, vehicle, parking location, and intended return time. Instruct your friend, “if you don’t hear from me by X time, call me. If I don’t answer, call 911.” Contact the friend as soon as you’re safely off the water.
- Know your craft. Understand what it can and can’t do. Some kayaks can’t be reentered when they’re swamped, so should never be taken far from shore or into heavy swells. Some sailboats aren’t made for heavy winds. Some powerboats aren’t designed for more than two people. Put a boat to a use for which is was not intended, or play Russian roulette. Same thing, your choice.
- Wear your pfd (lifejacket) properly. If it’s lying on the seat next to you, or worn loosely, it’s useless. A pfd is meant to be worn snugly – almost uncomfortably – so it can give buoyancy to your upper body and keep your head out of the water when you fall in. It’s virtually impossible, especially in frigid water, to put on or adjust a pfd after you’re in the water. Wear it and cinch it tight before you need it.
- Bring waterproof communication. Keep a vhf radio or cell phone safely waterproofed, usable and reachable if you end up in the water. Practice using your device while it’s in its waterproof case.
It’s rarely possible to speculate whether any of these steps would have prevented a specific tragedy. But to maximize your shot at survival in the event of a mishap on our chilly, beautiful Salish Sea, treat these seven steps as essentials every time you hit the water – regardless of your craft.
- Here are some additional, sensible steps to consider when appropriate:
- Don’t wear cotton. Fleece and wool dry much more quickly, tend to wick chilly water away from your body, and provide some insulation even when wet.
- Bring a thermos of hot beverage, to warm you or a boating buddy if you’re chilled.
- Understand navigation using charts and a compass, not just your pocket gps.
- When boating with a group, know your buddies. Know the strengths, weaknesses, and expectations of each person, and talk about what to expect in an emergency.
- If you end up in the water, it’s almost always best to stay with your boat rather than try to swim to shore.
- SUP paddlers should always use an ankle leash.
- Along with “know your craft”, practice your skills. Take advantage of boating safety resources on line and in person. We have professional instructors right here on the island who teach everything from SUP paddling and kayaking to sailing and power boating, including all the safety information you could ever need. Use them!
- Don’t assume you’ll be rescued. This isn’t Disneyland or a water park. Your safety is your responsibility.
- Boat regularly with someone who’s more skilled than you are. There’s always something new to learn, from unfurling a sail to rolling a kayak. Keep getting better by challenging yourself to learn more from your boating buddies.
- Learn to swim. After a few minutes in our waters, we’re all non-swimmers. Still, a strong, confident swimming stroke provides an extra margin of safety. And with a local pool that provides affordable lessons for both adults and children, there is no excuse for being a non-swimmer here on Whidbey Island.
Honor the memories of our neighbors and friends who have died in our waters by not becoming a victim yourself. Know and respect the risks. Play by Nature’s rules, and teach your loved ones to do the same. You and your family will come home with smiles on your faces and build a lifetime of good memories on the water.
If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading. For graphic detail on the effects of cold water, take a few minutes to look at some shocking videos at Cold Water Boot Camp.