Water sport safety | Editorial

Everywhere you turn in the San Juan Islands, you’re likely to see someone on a paddleboard or in a kayak. These sports are one of the main reasons people come to the islands on vacation.

Next week is Paddle Safe Week — the Washington State Parks Boating Program’s statewide effort to increase safety awareness to kayaker, canoers and stand-up paddleboarders. Gov. Jay Inslee signed a proclamation in June declaring July 21-27 to be Paddle Safe Week.

Since 2012, nearly half of all boating fatalities in the state have involved paddlecraft. As paddle sports have grown in popularity, so have fatal accidents such as capsizing and swamping. These events lead to death by drowning as many victims are not wearing life jackets.

“The No. 1 safety precaution paddlers can take is to wear a life jacket — always,” Rob Sendak, Boating Program manager, said. “It’s the best way to protect their life in case of an accident.”

State Parks Boating Program encourages all paddlecraft users to follow these eight safety tips:

• Get educated. Knowing about paddling safety leads to a more enjoyable experience. Classes are available through local clubs and outfitters, city and county parks, recreation departments and online.

• Always wear a life jacket. State law requires all vessels — including canoes, kayaks and stand up paddleboards — to have at least one properly fitted Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person on board.

• Carry essential gear. This includes a whistle or other sound-producing device (required by law) and some form of communication device such as a cell phone (in a waterproof bag) or VHF marine radio (while on coastal waters). Other essentials depend on the type of waterway and length of trip and should be researched in advance.

• Avoid alcohol and drugs. Operating any vessel, including paddlecraft, while under the influence of alcohol, drugs or marijuana is not only unsafe but it’s illegal.

• Check and understand the weather. Paddlers should check the weather frequently before and during their trip, keeping an eye on current conditions and forecasts. Check warnings, weather conditions, wind and wave forecasts, tides and current conditions or river flows — and understand when conditions are beyond their capabilities.

• Protect against cold-water shock. Many of Washington’s waters remain below 60 degrees all year — including lakes and rivers — even during hot weather. The biggest risk is not hypothermia, it’s cold-water shock, which occurs in the first stage of immersion. Avoid wearing cotton and synthetic materials when a wet or dry suit is not available.

• Be visible to other boaters. Paddlecraft sit low on the water, so it can be hard for other boaters to see them. The boating program advises paddlers to: wear bright neon colors and colors that contrast; put highly reflective tape on paddles; use a flagpole; and carry a bright light.

• File a float plan. Before going out on the water, even for a brief time, people should always tell a trusted friend or relative their plan. Include names of everyone going, the route, what time they’re going and returning, and what to do if they don’t return when expected.

For more information, visit www.PaddleSafeWa.org.