Cold water, unprepared boaters can lead to problems on the lake
As summer approaches and the holiday weekend arrives, the waters of Lake Tahoe may look more and more appealing to boaters and swimmers.
As a corollary, local public agencies are gearing up for summer and focusing on water safety-related issues.
An incident last month brought water safety to the forefront, as a woman fell into the water off Sand Harbor and was rescued by a group of responders.
Mike Schwartz, a battalion chief for the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District, said the incident was worsened because the woman started to feel the effects of the cold Tahoe water – which was hovering around 40 degrees.
“The most emergencies we see in terms of the water centers around the shoreline,” Schwartz said. “There are just such a volume of people swimming and boating close to the shore that we see more emergencies in that area.”
The emergencies range from distressed swimmers to head, neck and back injuries stemming from diving into shallow water.
“We’ve actually seen some very serious injuries from people diving into the water. Diving is always a very risky activity when you don’t know the water. The best idea is to look and go feet first, every time,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said that early in the season, swimmers are prone to fatigue caused by cold water, and they need to understand Tahoe is a cold lake which will not necessarily be warm regardless of warm air temperatures.
Washoe County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Matthews, who works for the county’s search-and-rescue team, echoed Schwartz’s comments.
“Even if you’re a good swimmer, you still need a life preserver,” Matthews said. “After 15 minutes in water that cold, you are going to have problems; you tire out quickly.”
Matthews said a majority of the emergency rescues they perform early in the summer revolve around distressed boats.
Dead batteries and gummed-up fuel lines plague boaters early in the season, Matthews said. They will leave boaters stranded in the middle of lakes without any way of getting back to shore.
“Make sure to check all of your equipment before you head out for the first time in a season,” Matthews said. “A lot of that stuff wears out over the winter and needs to be looked at before you go out on the lake.”
He said radios set to coast guard or emergency frequencies are helpful to boaters.
“Also, make sure to tell people where you are going and when you expect to be back,” Matthews said. “If someone knows where you are it makes it easier for rescuers to locate you.”
Schwartz said locating distressed boaters is a challenge sometimes, as people who can radio in their position don’t always know where they are.
“If you radio in that you’re in trouble, you need to be very familiar with where you are and be able to identify it to responders,” Schwartz said. “On places like the East Shore, people have all sorts of different nicknames for beaches, and it can be hard to find people, it’s such a big lake.”
By far, though, Matthews said the most important part of water safety is having life preservers for everyone on a boat.
“If you’re not in a cabin, you need to have a lifejacket on,” Matthews said. “Sometimes parents think they are only for kids, but if Dad falls off and goes into the water, he’s got about two to three minutes for someone to notice him before he goes under and doesn’t come back up. It can happen that quick.”
Matthews said two accidents on Nevada waterways last month resulted in the deaths of three men, all of whom may not have been wearing lifejackets.
The first accident happened on April 5 at Rye Patch Reservoir outside Lovelock, Nev. A 52-year-old Reno resident presumably went overboard off a 12-foot aluminum boat while fishing, according to a April 18 press release from the Nevada Department of Wildlife. Preliminary investigations show that he was not wearing a life jacket.
The second accident was reported at Rawhide Reservoir, a privately owned reservoir on the Petan Ranch in Elko County on Sunday. Two men went out on the reservoir in a canoe and capsized. A 24-year-old employee of Petan Ranch presumably drowned. Neither men were wearing life jackets and there were no life jackets in the boat, officials said.