Penticton first responders warning channel floaters of high water flows and urging safety precautions

Channel drowning warning

With Penticton Channel floating season back again for the summer, the Penticton Fire Department is warning floaters to be aware the lazy-looking river can turn deadly in a moment if proper safety steps aren't taken. 

Fire chief Larry Watkinson and his team respond to multiple calls every year from people in distress on the channel. This year is especially worrisome with water levels high.

"The big concern right now is that we have peak flow coming through the channel right now, so although it appears to be a calm, smooth-flowing body of water it actually has some rip tides, underwater debris that can get hooked up on ropes," Watkinson said. 

"And it's moving very fast. You think you're not moving very quickly but when you get in a situation where you're pushed up against a roadway abutment or a branch, it can hold you to that and basically pull you under."

The main message: Don't tie your rafts and floaties together. 

That's exactly what happened in June 2017 when a 20-year-old Quebec man drowned. The man's floatie had been tied to those of his three friends when their rafts became entangled on the bridge support. 

"One raft went on one side of the abutment and one went on the other and it flipped them over and dragged him under," Watkinson said. "We try to get there as quickly as we can, but we're coming up from Skaha Lake on our rescue watercraft and our engine drops swimmers in from above to do our rescue techniques but sometimes it's sadly too late." 

"The avoidance factor is about that. Be aware of your surroundings, wear personal protective equipment [life jackets], and don't tie your rafts together," Watkinson advised. "I know it's hard, people want to be social, but you can lock legs, hold hands. Tying ropes together can really be a dangerous situation."

He also urged floaters to be careful about drinking too much alcohol. 

"Everybody enjoys a beverage on a nice sunny day but when it gets to a point of overconsumption it's dangerous," he said. "A lot of the drowning incidences that we see are based around overconsumption and the ability not to control themselves in fast-moving, high-powered water situations. Or boating accidents."

Watkinson is hoping the message sinks in with the weather heating up and Coyote Cruises opening for the season Saturday. 

"They do a great job. They train their staff, they are doing all the right things," Watkinson said. "We're just trying to get the message out that there are certain small things that [floaters] can do to avoid those potentially very dangerous situations." 

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