Stay safe on the water

Wayne and Melissa Wineland bring their boat into the launch at Riverview Park Independence on Monday afternoon while a family swims nearby.

Photo by Jolene Guzman
Wayne and Melissa Wineland bring their boat into the launch at Riverview Park Independence on Monday afternoon while a family swims nearby.

POLK COUNTY — Heading down to the Willamette River for a day on the water — or maybe just swim or wade?

Take your life jacket — and don’t forget to use it. That is the No. 1 water recreation safety tip from state and local officials.

“We encourage people, if they are near the water to use a life jacket,” said Dean Bender, Polk County Sheriff’s Office Marine Program manager.

Also, if you are planning for a day on the water, don’t go alone and always let someone else know about your plans.

“Don’t swim alone, don’t go near the water alone because something can happen,” Bender said.

With near record-breaking temperatures last weekend, it was busy on the river. Bender was happy to report that, for the most part, people were following the life jacket laws.

“I didn’t have to cite anybody for not wearing a life jacket,” he said. “Everyone was wearing one or had life jackets with them.”

Bender said the county’s marine patrol won’t often issue warnings for life jacket violations — boaters are required to have them on board. Most of the time, officers will write tickets.

“Those tickets aren’t cheap,” he said. “It’s $60 for life jackets.”

But even if you are not on a boat in the middle of the river, a life jacket is a good idea, especially if you plan on swimming for any amount of time.

Air temperatures are hot, but the water temperature isn’t. Bender said diving into cold water can be a shock and may lead to people inhaling water as they gasp. Wearing a life jacket will keep your head above water if that happens.

Keep in mind, too, that sections of shallow water can suddenly drop off into areas that are 10 to 12 feet deep. Bender also suggests putting a whistle on your life jacket just in case you run into trouble. You may not be able to scream if suddenly immersed in cold water and screaming may sound like someone having fun on the water.

“By blowing a whistle, we know things are not good,” Bender said.

For boaters, this season presents an unusual challenge. Water levels are extremely low for this time of year. In fact, Bender has never seen the river this low in early June. That means boats can potentially get stuck on gravel bars or other obstacles typically not exposed until later in the season.

“It’s pretty deceiving,” Bender said. “The water may be flat, but it could be just a few inches (deep).”

For those who do run aground, the sheriff’s patrol may not be able to rescue your boat — officers will always make sure passengers are safe — for fear of damaging the patrol boat and having both vessels be out of commission.

“We try not to tow boats,” Bender said.

With hot days looking like they might be here to stay, floating down the river may be the perfect cure, but Bender reminds people to plan for the unexpected. He said pay attention to conditions on the river — such as floating into a headwind — may make those unmotorized journeys slower than expected.

“Plan for early in the day to go,” Bender said. “And don’t wait until dark to call for help.”

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