Michael Wagar Commentary: Don’t Be Fooled By Hot Temps; ‘Water Shock’ a Killer


“Man Drowns Near Bellevue After Trying to Rescue a Child Who Had Fallen Off a Sailboat” was the headline posted on Chronline.com on Friday.

On Wednesday, the man was trying to rescue his son who had fallen off a boat, as originally reported in The Seattle Times. The body of the man was found by police a day later in 100 feet of water.

The man had rented a motorboat and set out for a day of sunshine and water play with two other adult friends and his two children, ages 6 and 4. One of the children, wearing a life jacket, fell off the boat. The father jumped in. He was not wearing a life jacket. Locals from a nearby sailing club rescued the boy, but the father did not resurface.

Boating season, with the end of the school year, is open and starting to get busy. And that ultimately means unnecessary tragedy for too many families.

In recent years, the U.S. Coast Guard ranked Washington state as the fourth most dangerous. Our many waterways, from Puget Sound to our lakes and rivers, fill up with people ready to play. We have about 225,000 registered boaters in the state, with another 1 million people floating in canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards. Our state averages about 100 drownings each year, with young men between the ages of 15 to 24 years old most likely to die from drowning.

Every year in Lewis County, we seem to have at least a handful of people drown while recreating on area waters. Where I live, at Mayfield Lake, the serene water hides extreme danger this time of year. Because the lake is fed from the Cowlitz River, which in turn is fed by the Cowlitz Glacier off of Mount Rainier, the water is cold. Typically this time of year, the temperature sits at about 58 degrees. Later in the summer, the water temperature rises to about 70 degrees, still cold, but manageable for a swim — while wearing a life jacket.

It is the cold water that kills, compounded by those inviting days when the sun comes out and the temps rise into the 80s and 90s. It’s called “water shock,” and it can hit the most accomplished of swimmers.

According to the Coast Guard, when a body hits the cold water, the person usually has a large gasp and increase in heart rate, along with faster breathing. The body can quickly shut down and start to lose motor skills.

After 10 minutes in a cold water lake, the body starts to protect itself, first by drawing blood from the arms and legs to the core. The result can be the inability to swim.

We had such an incident take place this past March, when a young man jumped from a railroad trestle bridge into the Chehalis River at the Willapa Hills Trail. The man jumped in, resurfaced and started to swim back to the bank. He called out to friends and reportedly his body went “limp.” He drowned after suffering from cold water shock.

We’re in the danger zone right now, as temperatures at Mayfield Lake are forecast for 77 today (Saturday), followed by high temps of 86, 91 and 81 in the next few days. We have a forecast for high temperatures into the 90s again next weekend.

The easy solution is to have everyone on the boat or in the water wearing a life jacket. It is possible while wearing a life jacket to last more than an hour treading cold water before hypothermia takes over. Recent deaths from drowning indicate, about 75% of all fatal boating incidents were from drowning, with 88% of those victims not wearing a lifejacket. The rule is a lifejacket must be available for every person on the boat,.The other key is to watch the alcohol intake, a popular part of boating for many. An estimated 20% of youth and adult deaths have alcohol as part of the problem.

Today’s local waters are cold. The temperatures are about to soar.

You can help your family and friends avoid needless tragedy by having everyone wear a lifejacket (children 12 and under should always wear a lifejacket, as soon as they walk onto a dock or board a boat) and please, don’t overdo the drinks.


Michael Wagar is a former president, publisher and editor of The Chronicle.