5 tips for keeping your holiday weekend on the water terrific — not tragic

Boating safety tips for Tri-Citians

Deputy JP Benitez of the Benton County Sheriff's Office offers these water safety tips and boat handling guidelines for boat operators using rivers around the Mid-Columbia.
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Deputy JP Benitez of the Benton County Sheriff's Office offers these water safety tips and boat handling guidelines for boat operators using rivers around the Mid-Columbia.

With weather warming up and the arrival of Memorial Day weekend, Tri-Citians are gearing up to put their boats in the water.

While the relatively calm-looking Columbia rivers may seem safe, conditions can quickly turn deadly.

Last year, 103 boating accidents statewide killed 21 and injured 57 others. And more than 70 percent of those deaths were between May and August.

Already this year, eight people have died on the water — nearly twice as many as at this point last year.

“Safe boating begins with preparation,” said Rob Sendak, the state parks boating program manager. “Through basic boating safety behavior, boaters can help keep Washington’s waterways safe for everyone this summer and year-round.”

The Washington State Parks Boating Program teamed up with Benton County sheriffs deputies Brett Hansen and JP Benitez to offer five tips to make you safer on the rivers this summer.

1. Boater education

The first step in preparation happens even before you get into your boat or even hook up your trailer.

It’s a free eight-hour course that’s taught online or through local sheriff’s offices.

Lessons include water safety basics, like wearing life jackets, preparing for cold water, emergency procedures, navigation rules and boat knowledge.

“It’s the law to get your boater education card,” Hansen said.

Find a list of local classes at bit.ly/WABoatingClasses or go online at bit.ly/OnlineBoatingClass.

2. Life jackets

Nationwide, 84 percent of drowning victims weren’t wearing their life jacket. Most of those happened within sight of the shore.

The real danger when you fall into cold water isn’t hypothermia, it’s shock, said Christina Fremont, with the parks’ boating program.

Lifejacket loaners
Life jackets can be borrowed for free at the boat launch in Richland’s Howard Amon Park. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Cold water mixed with adrenaline and panic disorients people. And hyperventilation makes them less buoyant. So if you don’t have a life jacket on, you may try to breathe without even thinking about it.

“Drowning is the most common reason for a boating fatality,” said Derek VanDyke, the state parks’ boating education coordinator. “It’s not blunt trauma. It’s not hitting the dock at high speed. It’s drowning.”

While not everyone is required to wear their life jacket all of the time, it’s hard to predict when you may need it, so having it on may make the difference between surviving an unexpected plunge into the water and not.

3. Safety equipment

While falling in the water is the greater risk, there are other things you should have on board in case of a fire or you need to call someone for help, including a fire extinguisher, a working marine radio and a cellphone.

“Out on the water you’re your first line of defense,” Hansen said. “It’s going to take us awhile to get to you..”

4. Stay sober

In Washington, alcohol or drug use is a factor in nearly half of all fatal boating accidents, according to state figures.

Hansen and Fremont said it’s important to have someone who is alert and coherent on the boat at all times.

“Some of our worse accidents are caused by impaired boaters,” VanDyke said.

BCSO patrol boat
The Benton County Sheriff’s Office marine patrol boat is regularly operated by Deputies JP Benitez, left, and Brett Hansen on the Columbia River during the summer. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

The combination of the summer heat and the rocking of the boat can mask the affects of the alcohol.

Also, boating under the influence could result in a sentence of up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

5. Weather

Gusting winds can quickly whip up what was a calm surface into a dangerous chop, officials said.

“The smaller the craft, the higher the adventure, and the more that a small wind wave can impact and capsize you,” VanDyke said. “So many boaters focus on temperature and cloud coverage, and that’s going to be their definition of a good day of boating, but they don’t check the winds.”

A 25-mph wind cause waves that can capsize a kayak, he said.

State parks and deputies say boaters should always check with the National Weather Service before heading out.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.