Cold Water / Rescue

Open water rescue

Continuing on the subject of how cold the waters of Puget Sound are, I thought I would write a little bit about open water rescues that I have witnessed and how they influence my understanding and appreciation for the place I live.

According to NOAA the waters of Puget Sound in the Tacoma area fluctuate from between 49 F in May to about 55 F in August. A week ago it was 51 degrees in the shallows (approximately 16 feet deep with slack tide running.)  These temperatures are cold enough to cause a gasp reflex when one is suddenly submerged, leading to water inhalation. It also means that it takes between 45 minutes and a couple of hours to lose consciousness, and between 3 and 6 hours for a water rescue to turn into a body recovery. Those times fluctuate based on body composition, full or partial submersion, whether you are floating and conserving energy or fighting to keep your head above water. If fifteen minutes floating in the water up to my neck was enough to give me numb tongue I can only imagine what 45 minutes of treading water would feel like.

The most common rescue that happens in front of Salmon Beach is the out-in-the-canoe-at-sunset rescue. It seems that every few summers right about sunset, voices will be heard over the water, neighbors will put their outboard skiffs in, and they race out to pull someone out of The Narrows. Frequently these are three people and a canoe. If they are two people there is usually a third source of weight- a cooler with ice and beer, a large dog, etc. It is common for dusk to bring with it a decent breeze, as the air temperature rapidly drops over the water. This can also cause a few waves. An overloaded canoe with inexperienced paddlers and extra weight is the perfect candidate for a sinking.

A few summers ago this scenario played out as we managed to pull three men out of the water just in time. The sun dipped below the horizon, the temperature dropped by 15 F, the breeze came up, and we heard the word “help” being called out over the water. All that could be seen were a couple of dark spots on the water, perhaps 1/2 mile away and moving south towards the Narrows Bridge quite quickly. 911 was called and three different boats from Salmon Beach were in the water and racing towards them within a couple of minutes. My stepfather Ed was in his boat with another neighbor, Chris, and they headed towards the dot furthest north. As the three boats headed out, the Tacoma Fire boat cruised around Pt. Defiance and headed towards them as well.

Salmon Beach boats pulled out all three men, and the TFD boat transferred them to their vessel, but the guy my stepfather and Chris got had been passed by the fire boat. The FD rescuers had seen his two friends but had missed seeing him. Talking to him later he said that he could barely keep his nose above water and was about to give up when the fireboat went right past him. He said they had been in the water for maybe 30 minutes.

Other times other boaters are at fault. Two summers ago while out in the boat with Micki and Rowan I spotted something in the water off of Pt. Defiance. It looked like someone was in the water next to a larger boat, and a helicopter was buzzing around in the area. Getting closer we could see that two kayakers had rolled their craft and were clinging to them as people on the large boat shouted advice. A zodiac was also nearby, flipped over with the pilot sitting on top.

The kayakers had seen the zodiac flip over, sending the pilot and his dog into the water. They paddled over to try and help. A speed boat had then flown by the kayakers, creating a wake that rolled them into the water as well. The folks on the large boat saw this and eased over to try and help. The dog was handed up to someone on the large boat and was okay, and the zodiac was tossed a rope and tied off. The kayakers had been in the water only about 10-12 minutes, but both were already too exhausted and cold to grab hands and get pulled over the tall side of the larger boat. A call had been made and the helicopter was overhead, but Coast Guard, Fire Department and Police vessels were not on scene yet. During this entire time the current was pulling them away from Pt. Defiance into deeper and faster water. Rowan used an oar from our boat to help the young man in the water, and we pulled him over the low gunnels. His mother was pulled in next, we tied up their rental kayaks, and delivered them to Owen Beach, where the kayaks could be returned and their car was parked. By the time we dropped them off they had settled into some serious shivering, and I imagine the heater was going full blast in their car within minutes.

The take away for me is that open water is no joke. Many boaters treat it as some sort of wide, flat road they can play around on without regard for other boaters, wildlife, etc. And more often than not no ill results from this. But when the water is that cold, the currents so strong, and no guarantee of being seen or heard if you get into trouble, the risk truly isn’t worth it.

*The photo is not of fools rescued after swamping their canoe. Pictured are myself and two friends preparing for the annual 4th of July Rowboat Race. We didn’t swamp it (that year) but it is the only photo I had of fools in a canoe.

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