Washington state’s inviting waters have enough chill to kill

With the start of boating season and forecasters predicting a hot, dry summer, water-safety experts are warning of the dangers of cold-water shock, which can lead to a drowning in just minutes. An above-average snowpack this year means rivers and lakes will be colder longer.

Seventeen-year-old Jeremiah Smith, “a stellar athlete” with zero body fat, drowned in Auburn’s Green River in April 2016, succumbing to what is known as cold-water shock, according to the King County Sheriff’s Office.

A few weeks later, Mohamed Ali, a 27-year-old Somali immigrant who lived in Seattle, jumped from an inflatable boat and sank to the bottom of SeaTac’s Angle Lake in less than a minute. It took dive crews three hours to recover his body.

“The water in Washington state does not warm up,” said Deputy Rich Barton of the King County sheriff’s Marine Rescue Dive Unit.

“That’s what makes our waters dangerous. It’s not something you can tread water in for hours,” noted Derek VanDyke, education coordinator for the state Parks and Recreation Commission’s recreational-boating program.

Barton, VanDyke and representatives from the National Weather Service, Washington State Parks and the U.S. Coast Guard are on a mission to discuss water safety in anticipation of Saturday’s start to boating season. They warned that this summer could prove to be more deadly than usual because mountain snow is melting at a much slower rate than usual.

In 2015, the Coast Guard ranked Washington as the fourth-most dangerous boating state, behind Florida, California and Texas. With 220,000 registered boats and an estimated 700,000 to 900,000 paddlesport users — a category that includes canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards — Washington has more drowning fatalities than any state except California and Florida, VanDyke said.

Though this state averages 100 drowning deaths a year, in 2016 that number rose to 180, he said. Men ages 30 to 55 are the most likely to die in boating-related incidents, and “most people who die in boating accidents die from drowning,” according to VanDyke.

“What makes boating dangerous in Washington is cold water. Many of our boaters are casual boaters, so they don’t know how to mitigate the risk,” he said.

After a snowy winter followed by a cool, wet spring, the Northwest Avalanche Center reported Monday the snowpack in the Olympic and Cascade mountains is 120 percent of average, said Ted Buehner, a meteorologist who coordinates weather warnings for the National Weather Service in Seattle.

“We haven’t had much melt-off and runoff yet,” Buehner said of the mountain snow that feeds the region’s rivers and lakes. “This year that cold water is going to be there later in the season,” likely through September, he said.

With forecasters predicting a hot, dry summer, more and more people are likely to seek relief in rivers, lakes and Puget Sound,…

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