Water-safety worries heating up

As temperature climbs, officials urge caution if enjoying Columbia River

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

Published:

 

In the wake of Sunday's rescue of two teenage boys rafting on the Columbia River, Vancouver firefighters offered boating safety advice on Monday and warned that what started as fun on a warm afternoon could have turned tragic.

The boys were spotted floating on a makeshift raft near the Interstate 5 Bridge Sunday evening. The raft was made of wood planks lashed together with a couple pieces of plastic foam attached to the bottom and a plastic play table tied on top of the raft with rope. The boys, estimated to be about 15 or 16, said they found the raft on a beach and hopped on it, according to Vancouver firefighters. Their names were not released.

The teens had no safety equipment and no way to steer the raft. They had two life jackets but weren't wearing them.

The boys got caught in some wood pilings underneath the Quay. A fisherman spotted them floating near Joe's Crab Shack around 8 p.m. and dialed 911.

Luckily, the fire department's rescue boat was docked just west of the Quay, quickly got to the scene and got the boys out of the water.

"This had a good outcome, which doesn't happen all of the time unfortunately," Capt. Kevin Murray said Monday. "They were out here at the mercy of the current."

The river's current moves at about 5 to 6 miles per hour, which could have flipped the makeshift raft, said Jason Hathaway, a firefighter with the department's marine division. Although the air is hot, the water is still cold — about 70 degrees Monday — and has undercurrents, he said.

Playing in traffic

The Columbia River is an unforgiving major waterway extending to Canada that carries commercial boat traffic, Murray said. Smaller boats, such as sailboats and speedboats, have to yield to barges. He said if the teens had gotten into the pathway of a large commercial vessel, they couldn't have turned to avoid a collision.

"This isn't a river you just float on," Murray said.

If, for whatever reason, people find themselves in a similar situation as the teens -- stranded with no safety equipment -- they should wave at everyone along the river to let them know they're in danger, Murray said.

People enjoying the Columbia should make sure they're properly equipped before they leave shore, Murray said. Boaters are required by law to have a life jacket for each

person on board and anyone under 13 is required to wear a life jacket at all times on any vessel less than 19 feet long. Boaters also need to carry a fire extinguisher and signaling devices such as flares, whistles or an air horn.

Hathaway recommends swimming with a buddy, especially in cold water. Water robs the body of heat 25 to 30 times as fast as air, according to the U.S. Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water, and will make swimming more difficult.

Vancouver Fire asks the public to step in if they see anyone, especially kids, engaging in dangerous boating activities or getting onto an unreliable water vessel without any safety equipment.

"With hot weather coming up, everybody needs to be safe," Murray said.