A beautiful day on Lake Washington could have ended in tragedy Thursday, had not a quick-thinking Monroe boat owner noticed the plight of a capsizing boat and rescued all nine occupants just minutes before the boat would have plunged them all into dangerously cold water.
Ron Strand, owner of Strand’s Home Furnishings in Monroe, is an avid boater with 30 years of experience and a fishing boat and a pleasure boat that he keeps on Lake Washington.
Thursday was an unseasonably gorgeous day in the Puget Sound, and like many other water-lovers, he and his wife headed for the lake.
Oddly enough, a day that would end with a dramatic rescue began with a rescue as well; as he and his wife headed for Kirkland, some young people waved him down and asked for help. They were out of gas.
“That was the start of our day,” said Strand.
After he towed the young people to a gas station, he, his wife and friends climbed into his 33-foot motor boat and set out for Andrews Bay, a popular place south of I-90 to drop anchor for the day and enjoy views of scenic Seward Park, forested hills and bald eagles.
The lake was heavily trafficked that day, but as the evening gathered, the lake surface quickly emptied.
At about 7 p.m., Strand pulled up his anchor and was preparing to head in for the night, as well, when he noticed the people on the only other boat left near them were waving frantically.
He’d seen the other boat out on the water earlier, pulling inner tubes and seemingly fine. But as he steered over to them, it was clear something had gone badly wrong.
“It looked like they had ankle-deep water,” said Strand. “I thought they had possibly forgotten to put the plug in.”
It’s a not-uncommon mistake that’s a common source of amusement among boaters; even Strand himself has forgotten to put the plug in at the bottom of the boat that allows water to drain out, requiring some embarrassed bailing.
There were nine people on the troubled boat, close to capacity for its size. Fortunately, there were only three people left on Strand’s boat. So Strand called the police Marine Patrol as he drew alongside the boat. He tied the boats together and started moving the young people off the sinking vessel.
As the passengers made their way into his boat, their boat sunk steadily.
“When we got the last guy off, the boat was halfway down,” said Strand. “It was literally like five minute before it would have sunk.”
The young people, mostly between 22 and 26, were largely inexperienced and frightened, said Strand.
“The girls were terrified; most were in shock, thanking us for saving their lives,” he said.
All but two young men, both the worse for drink, were wearing life vests, but the water of Lake Washington is about 56 degrees, a temperature at which unconsciousness is expected in about an hour, and death in as few as two hours. The two young men were at highest risk; life expectancy for hypothermia drops dramatically for those not wearing life jackets and those with alcohol in their systems.
Strand still hoped to save the other boat.
“I planned to get it on a plane and tow it fast enough so the water would come out, but there was too much water,” he said.
He was forced to cut the rope connecting the boats.
Emergency responders got there very quickly, within 10 minutes; although “it felt like half an hour,” said Strand.
“By the time they got there, we had all the kids on our boat,” he said. “All their coolers and boat cushions were floating all over the lake.”
The Marine Patrol was able to get a rope attached to the sinking boat, which by then had turned onto its side with only a small part still above the water, and slowly towed it to shore.
“We followed them in, and when they unhooked the boat, we transferred the kids to their boat,” said Strand. “It took a couple hours.”
No one was able to learn why the boat, which the young people had rented, developed a leak late in the day.
But one thing is for sure, had Strand not noticed their distress, the story could have ended much more tragically.
“If we were 20 minutes earlier or 20 minutes later, well, we wouldn’t have seen them 20 minutes later,” said Strand.
Boat Safety Tips
By Polly Keary, Editor
After 30 years on the water, Ron Strand said that he’s surprised emergencies like the one he helped address don’t happen more often.
“At the start of every summer, you see people out there; they don’t know boating etiquette, they don’t know safety,” he said. “You got guys on jet skis cutting in front of boats.”
Here are things everyone should know before taking to the water.
1. Seventy percent of boat accidents are due to operator error. If you plan to take up boating, take a boating safety course. There are many, many online courses. Among the best are www.commanderbob.com, boaterexam.com and boatsafe.com.
2. Wear your life jacket the entire time you are in the boat. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that 80 percent of boating fatalities could have been prevented by life jackets. You won’t have time to put your life jacket on if your boat overturns or crashes. Wear it the whole time.
3. Fill out a float plan and leave it with someone before you head out. A float plan is a one-sheet form that includes your plans, the description of your boat, how to reach you by radio, what distress signals and survival equipment your boat is equipped with, and who is onboard, as well as where you are going. You can get a PDF at http://www.floatplancentral.org/download/USCGFloatPlan.pdf.
4. About a third of all boat fatalities involve alcohol. It’s illegal to drive a boat under the influence, but it’s never a good idea to drink on the water. Alcohol increases the risk of falling in or out of the boat; increases fatigue in the taxing water environment; makes you a lot likelier to drown once you do fall in the water and speeds the process of hypothermia. And a boat operator with a BAC of 1.0 or above is 10 times more likely to die boating than a sober driver. The best policy is to leave booze on the shore; if you do bring it, the driver at least must abstain, and the rest should limit intake.
5. Know the rules. There are boating rules just as there are driving rules. Download a copy of the U.S. Coast Guard navigation rules at http://www.navcen.uscg.gov/?pageName=navRulesContent.
6. Speed is also a major factor in many boat emergencies. Slow down.
7. Don’t put too many people in the boat. There is a capacity plate on boats near the steering wheel that says how many people can safely ride; this can be terribly misleading, as the capacity is determined by weight, not by safe seats. Never take more people in a boat than there are safe seats.
8. A fifth of all boat fatalities are children 14 and under. Watch kids. Make sure their life jackets are on pretty tight; make sure their chins or ears can’t slip through.
9. Carbon monoxide poisoning happens on boats. A slow or idling boat can build exhaust in its enclosed cabin or even in open areas quickly. Ventilate thoroughly, and don’t swim near an idling boat. Make sure carbon monoxide detectors are onboard and working.
10. Driving on land generally is confined to the road. Driving on water is a 360-degree experience. Be aware at all times of who and what is around you. Don’t cut in front of other watercrafts. Give other boaters room. Be aware of boating etiquette.