There's no warning label, no safety bulletin, no billboard message that can accurately communicate what cold water does to the human body. It is like every muscle gets bound by heavy chains, unable to carry out the survival commands the brain is frantically sending their way.
The people involved in watercraft safety just hope they can wave the red flag in the early spring and get boaters' attention before another tragedy occurs.
It was nine years ago almost to the day that a couple of men from Michigan launched their boat in the Maumee River just as the annual walleye run was getting started. The water was swift and swirling around in that cappuccino brown we are so accustomed to seeing.
The pair had walleye fever, an affliction that rapidly becomes pandemic across the angler spectrum once we see fishermen working the river for the first time each year.
The duo anchored their boat, off the bow and the stern, apparently hoping that dual system would provide some stability in the strong current. When the front anchor broke loose from the irregular and boulder-strewn river bed, the rear anchor held and the boat spun around, rapidly filling with water and dumping the two fishermen into the river.
Without life jackets, they never really had a chance. The water was a frigid 39 degrees — a temperature that can quickly incapacitate even a healthy, strong individual with good swimming skills.
"When you end up in water that cold, it takes over the whole body. Your body is robbed of its core temperature 25 times faster," said Chad German, area supervisor for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Maumee Bay office of the Division of Watercraft.
"That cold surrounding you — it's such a huge shock to the body. People always assume they would just swim to shore or back to the boat, but water as cold as what we have in the rivers and in Lake Erie this time of year — it just robs you of the ability to do that."
Both men drowned and while one body was recovered immediately, the other was not located for a month. They became part of the grim statistic that shows 90 percent of boating fatalities are due to drowning – deaths that could have been prevented in nearly every case if the victim had been wearing an approved life jacket or inflatable vest.
German said that using a flotation device is the single-best move a fisherman can make, and that includes the boaters on the river and out on Lake Erie, and the anglers who wade the rivers in early spring.
Boating anglers also need to be reminded to dress for the temperature of the water, not the air. A fisherman in a T-shirt who experiences a cold water immersion is going to have less time in his survival hourglass than one who is more sensibly garbed.
The watercraft officials in Ohio and Michigan also urge the early-season boaters to not let haste run roughshod over common sense. In their zest to join in the fun and take part in a blossoming walleye bonanza, boating anglers sometimes don't properly assess the conditions, or go through the usual prelaunch checklist before putting the boat in the water.
"That first time out on the water each year, the checklist is most critical," German said. "So many problems can be avoided if boaters just take the time to make sure that watercraft is ready. You don't want to get out in the middle of the river or get out on one of the reefs on the lake, and then discover you've got a problem. Things tend to happen in a hurry out there."
Boating safety experts drill home that point that the best approach to safety on the water often begins with the choices made before leaving the dock, or the boat ramp.
* More safety tips are available on the Division of Watercraft's Web site at www.ohiodnr.com/watercraft and in a training program at www.coldwaterbootcamp.com which details the risks of cold water immersion.
* Sport anglers and boaters can take advantage of free vessel safety inspections offered by the ODNR's Division of Watercraft and its boating partners. Boat safety inspections are available on March 14 and March 24 from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. at the Mazurik Boat Ramp in Danbury Township, just east of Port Clinton.
There will also be a safety inspection held on March 25 at Turtle Creek Campground from 2-3 p.m. These inspections are free and part of the more than 70 such events held throughout the state through early June to increase safety awareness on the water.
* "Boating Safely," an eight-hour course covering the federal requirements for lights and equipment, trailering, and safety signs for on the water safety, is being offered on March 17th at the American Legion Post No. 320, 204 Illinois Ave., in Maumee. The course is conducted by the USCG Auxiliary flotilla, with registration beginning at 8 a.m. Lunch is provided and there is a $35 fee for the day, or two people can take the course for $45. Interested parties can get more information by contacting Dale Steinfurth at 419-536-BOAT or Terry Cleary at email@example.com and are encouraged to register by March 14.
* The Michigan State Police Marine Services Bureau is offering an online boating safety course and online boating safety tests. Completing this course will allow boaters to bypass the traditional classroom boating safety course and attend a single proctored exam in order to obtain a Michigan Boating Safety Certificate. Information is available at the BoatEd.com and Boater Exam.com web sites.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068
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