As weather gets warmer, water beckons — but be careful

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter



Water recreation checklist

Buy a VHF radio that connects you with other boaters on the water. If you're in distress, they may get to you faster than the county marine patrol. Those on personal watercraft can use a hand-held radio. Unlike your cell phone, these radios are waterproof.

Consider investing in the marine version of AAA. If your motorboat dies out on the water, Northwest River Tow or Columbia River Marine Assistance can tow it.

Seek out safety training for whatever kind of vessel you're operating.

Test out your boat's engine and battery before you leave for the boat ramp.

Call the Clark County Sheriff's Office Marine Patrol unit at 360-397-2106 with any questions.

Boat sober. Boaters can get a BUI if their blood alcohol concentration while operating a boat is .08 or above.

Online resources

Vessel Safety Check: Boaters can get their vessels inspected by a certified vessel examiner or complete a self-inspection online. The exam takes 30 to 40 minutes, and boats that pass the examination are awarded a decal that alerts the marine patrol that your boat complies with federal and state boating laws.

Washington State Parks Boating Program: Everything you need to know about how to get your boater card, where to rent boats and where to launch them.

Oregon State Paddle Sports Safety Course: This free online course approved by the Oregon State Marine Board covers how to safety use kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards.

Wear It!: This boating safety campaign's site includes national statistics on boating fatalities and instructions on how to use inflatable life jackets. One of the county's marine patrol boats is painted with the Wear It! campaign logo.

With weekend temperatures slated to hit about 85 degrees -- the warmest so far this season -- local residents may be dusting off their kayaks and boats or finding that swimsuit hidden in the back of their closet.

Despite the high temperatures, the Columbia River still hovers around a brisk 50 degrees, said Clark County Marine Patrol Deputy Todd Baker. Jumping into water that cold can cause a body to go into shock. You could gasp for breath and inhale water, or may even have a sudden heart attack.

In 50-degree water, a stranded swimmer has a 50 percent chance of being able to swim 50 yards, Baker said. In just a couple of minutes the extremities start to numb, making swimming to safety a challenge. Cold water is considered anything lower than 70 degrees.

Snow melt from the Cascades means the river's current is relatively fast, about 4 mph.

"You're moving a lot quicker than you think," Baker said.

Baker will be patrolling the Columbia and its tributaries, north up to Wood

land, this Saturday with the Clark County Sheriff's Office Marine Patrol unit. The unit typically checks 2,000 boats each year.

While many people may be eager to get on the water, Baker warns anyone recreating that they could find themselves in trouble if they aren't prepared.

Most commonly, people operating motorboats don't display their vessel registration number properly, but they're usually let off with a warning. The No. 1 ticketed offense has to do with life jackets. On any vessel, whether it's a kayak or a catamaran, there have to be enough life jackets for each person on board. Passengers 12 and younger must wear life jackets at all times. Anyone waterskiing or wake-boarding off the back of a motorboat must wear a life jacket, as well.

Violate any of those rules and marine patrol will issue a ticket, guaranteed.

Most people know they should wear a life jacket, but, for whatever reason, only 9.3 percent of adults actually wear them, according to JSI Research & Training Institute. With a life jacket on, it's much easier to maintain body heat if you end up in the water. You can huddle up and blow a whistle while you wait for safety.

Last year, half of Washington's 32 boating fatalities occurred among people using paddle craft -- kayaks, canoes, rowboats and stand-up paddleboards. The economic recession led many folks to sell their larger, engine-powered boats in exchange for a cheaper paddle craft that still gets them out on the water.

People in or on paddle craft have to obey the rules of the waterway like any other vessel and should be educated on paddle craft safety. They have to have a life jacket in their craft and a noise-producing device, such as a whistle.

Two kayakers died of hypothermia on the Columbia River near the Interstate 205 Bridge at the end of December. The couple weren't properly clothed, Baker said. Experienced kayakers typically wear a wet suit and some sort of fleece underneath.