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With Warm Weather, A Warning About Cold Water

The onset of warm weather in Seattle means more people will be out on the water.

Warmer temperatures this week mean more people will be out having fun on the water. Authorities say it’s a good time to remember that while the sun might be warm, the water is cold. 

For a sense of what it feels like to fall into Lake Washington, or the Puget Sound, or, really, any body of water in our area, try stepping into a cold shower. 

Deputy Charlie Akers, with the King County Sheriff Marine Rescue and Dive unit, said the first thing that will happen is an involuntary gasp.

"If your face is in the water, you suck in a bunch of water," he said. "And then you start the coughing and continual gasping. If you’re in the cold water for any length of time, then your extremities stop working.”

Cold water shock, as it’s known, can even cause cardiac arrest. And it happens fast. Much faster than the time it takes for emergency crews to launch a boat or mount a rescue.

Numbers from the Washington State Parks Boating Accident database show the most fatalities occurring in May.

That’s why officials are making the rounds this week urging the public to wear lifejackets, never boat alone, and make good decisions, such as not drinking before boating. The same advice holds true for small craft like kayaks and canoes, as well as paddle-boarders or even just someone rafting down a river. 

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.