The National Weather Service has forecasted temperatures almost 10 degrees above normal through the weekend and into the early part of next week with daytime highs in the mid to upper-70s except for a chilly Saturday, but local natural resources officer Adam Somerville said with water temperatures at both Rocky Fork and Paint Creek state parks hovering around 58 degrees, hypothermia could be a potentially hazardous issue in the event of a boating accident.
The local water temperature reading was taken Sunday at a depth of two feet below the surface with the temperature colder in deeper water, Somerville said, while to the north Lake Erie’s water was a brisk 45 degrees, and to the south the Ohio River at Maysville was close to 59 degrees.
Somerville’s jurisdiction covers both of Highland County’s state park lakes in addition to Adams Lake in West Union, the Ohio River from the Adams/Scioto counties line to the Brown/Clermont counties line, plus the boatable waterways of Rocky Fork, Paint and Brush creeks. He said that while almost 90 percent of boating fatalities are due to drowning, nearly half of those are caused by hypothermia.
“You don’t think about it since it’s warming up outside, but falling overboard into cold water is really painful,” he said. “Your arms and legs get numb from the cold real fast, and a person will get disoriented and start to panic, and when you combine cold water with panic, they could drown in a matter of minutes.”
According to a news release from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, falling into cold water triggers the body’s cold water immersion response, beginning with an uncontrollable gasping reflex, causing the victim to hyperventilate and experience difficulty in breathing, and recommended the use of a well-fitted life jacket that will keep a person’s head out of the water.
The release added that when a drowning victim starts to panic, heart rate and blood pressure dramatically increase, compounding the risk of a heart attack.
ODNR’s Division of Parks and Watercraft estimated survival time in the event of a boating accident at 15 minutes or less in near-freezing water. But chances for enduring an accident with current water temperatures increase to one to three hours, depending on clothing and protective gear, and the individual’s health condition.
Even with the National Weather Service calling for warmer temperatures, he recommended dressing in layers, especially for those intending to kayak down Rocky Fork Creek, which has been the site of several boating accidents in recent years.
Ready for immediate deployment in the event of an accident is a rescue trailer which contains a specialized boat and equipment, with the intention of being able to rapidly respond to a situation without the need of a local fire department having to put personnel into a remote area.
“Last year and the year before we began having problems on Rocky Fork Creek where it goes into the Highlands Nature Sanctuary on Cave Road,” Somerville said. “And most of them were accidents involving kayaks, with about 90 percent caused by operator inexperience or inattention, and the other 10 percent being alcohol-related.”
He described a popular boating practice called “ca-brewing,” where boaters use either a canoe or kayak trailing a cooler filled with alcoholic beverages behind. If someone is spotted boating and drinking, he said it is looked upon the same way as an open container violation when driving a car.
Another potentially expensive situation is what is called a “stream litter violation,” where the boater disposes of the can or bottle by tossing it overboard, which Somerville said carries a $250 ticket in Highland County for littering in a state-owned waterway.
However, he did say that though alcoholic beverages are prohibited in all state park areas, on land or on the water, the exception to that rule is registered camp sites, and then only within the confines of that specific camp site.
He said the key to safe boating is preparation and recommended that before embarking on a weekend of boating, or canoeing or kayaking with friends, to always wear a life jacket, check the local weather forecast, and contact a local bait and tackle shop for a current water temperature reading.
“Cold water will reduce your body heat 25 times faster than cold air,” he said. “The best prevention is to always wear a life jacket, because in my time patrolling our state parks, wearing a life jacket when you’re out on a boat is as important as wearing a seat belt when riding in a car.”
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.