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With boating season comes risk of cold water shock

sea turtle photo

Boating season opens this weekend and the weather forecast predicts mostly clear skies and temperatures in the upper 70s.

The warming temperatures have authorities concerned about water safety and the potential for deadly drowning incidents. Last year, 32 people died from drowning, and more than a third of them in the spring.

Wade Alonzo with the State Parks Boating Safety Program says Washington certainly sees cold water, even when the weather is fair.

“In the spring, when we have nice warm weather on a weekend, people are drawn to our waterways. And even though the air temperatures are in the 70s, the water temperatures remain in the 40s. And so when people go out in small vessels that are susceptible to capsize, and they tip over into the water, they’re unprepared for that," he said. 

Alonzo says many people die very quickly from cold water shock, which causes an immediate gasping reflex and hyperventilating. This can lead to drowning and trigger a heart attack even before hypothermia sets in. Muscles become stiff and movements difficult, so it’s crucial that a person in this situation is already wearing a life jacket.

Statistically, May is the most dangerous month of the year for drowning deaths in Washington.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.