‘If you fall in that water, it’s a pretty good shock and you could drown’

The sun is shining, but swimming in Whatcom lakes and rivers in spring can be deadly

Swimming in Whatcom lakes and rivers in spring before water temperatures rise can be a deadly. Here are some tips for avoiding cold water shock.
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Swimming in Whatcom lakes and rivers in spring before water temperatures rise can be a deadly. Here are some tips for avoiding cold water shock.

With another sunny weekend expected, weather forecasters and firefighters warn residents to take care around water in Washington, which has drowning rates among the highest in the U.S.

Despite the warm weather, many lakes and rivers remain deceptively cold, National Weather Service meteorologists said, and several water-related incidents have been reported recently in Whatcom County — including stranded boaters, a toddler who fell into a pond and a boater who nearly died when his sailboat flipped on Lake Whatcom.

“Make sure to use caution if you’re headed to area waterways, as water temperatures are still running very cold,” NWS Seattle tweeted last week. “Always wear a life jacket and know the signs of hypothermia.”

A total of 13 people drowned in non-boating-related incidents in Whatcom County from 2013 to 2017, the most recent statistics available, said Melissa Morin, spokeswoman for the Whatcom County Department of Health.

Whatcom County’s drowning rate is similar to that of Washington state, which has among the highest national drowning rates, according to 2010 data from the state Department of Health.

Men and boys ages 15-24 have the highest death rate of unintentional drowning victims, according to 2010 Department of Health data, the most recent available.

Centers for Disease Control data show that 10 people die every day across the U.S. from drownings not associated with a boating incident.

Another 332 people die annually from drownings related to boating incidents, the CDC said.

‘Things are still very cold’

Meteorologist Johnny Burg said the temperature of most lakes and rivers in Washington state is approximately 45 to 55 degrees — especially those fed by snowmelt or glacier runoff.

“Things are still very cold,” Burg told The Herald. “If you fall in that water, it’s a pretty good shock, and you could drown.”

North Whatcom Fire Chief Henry Hollander said he was unsure if the toddler survived the April 27 incident north of Bellingham, but that the boy was taken to the hospital.

In another incident that same day, a father and son were stranded when a strong wind picked up on Lake Terrell and their small fishing boat — with only a trolling motor — couldn’t make it back to shore, said Assistant Chief Dean Crosswhite of Whatcom County Fire District 7.

Crosswhite said a search and rescue team was alerted, but another boater helped the stranded family members to shore.

swfa rescue.jpg
South Whatcom Fire Lt. Scott Crowe and other boaters help pull a sailboat to the dock at Western Washington University’s Lakewood water sports facility on Lake Whatcom on April 26, 2019. SWFA crews rescued the sailor, who became entangled in the rigging after his boat capsized. South Whatcom Fire Authority Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Chief Dave Ralston of South Whatcom Fire Authority said firefighters used their motorboat at the Sudden Valley marina to save a man whose sailboat capsized April 26 on Lake Whatcom.

Ralston said the victim’s boat was keel-up in the lake, about 750 feet west of the marina, and the man was tangled in the rigging lines, struggling to keep his head above water.

“It saved his life. He was going to die,” Ralston told The Herald.

He said the victim, a 60-year-old man, was wearing a life jacket but was hypothermic.

Firefighters brought him to an ambulance, where they removed his wet clothing and warmed him.

Bellingham Fire Division Chief Rob Wilson, who supervises 911 dispatchers, said there was a recent uptick in water rescues — a total of five incidents from April 1 to May 9.

“With the weather warming up rapidly, we can expect to start seeing a lot more water-related calls,” Wilson told The Herald. “It can be dangerous, with these environmental conditions and cold water. They were potentially serious calls.”

Susan Gregg, spokeswoman for Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, reminded parents to keep an eye on their children and that everyone should wear life jackets when they’re on the water.

“People forget that the water’s cold even though the sun is out. I hope people are wearing life jackets,” Gregg told The Herald.

Lynne Wheeler watches her son Parker play at the river’s each as floaters head down the south fork of the Nooksack River between Acme and Van Zandt on Saturday, July 6, 2013 in Acme.”Our biggest issue isn’t that people come to the river, it’s the public safety issues. It’s the drunk driving, it’s the fighting,” says Wheeler. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.