The Saratoga Sun -

Boat safety requires preparation


Keith McLendon

"Prepare your party, your boat and your mind," says Biff Burton, Senior Game Warden with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Saratoga. The North Platte River around Saratoga is constantly changing and has a great variation in flow and that is "what gets people," Burton said.

With one death on the river this year already it may be time for a review of river safety preparations and habits.

The death that occurred on the river on June 26 was the result of a person being caught in a pile of debris. Piles of debris are called "strainers", because that's what they are. "They allow water to go through and catch everything that's in the current including people. There several of those between Treasure Island and town, and they are constantly changing," Burton said.

Every flood changes the watercourse of the river. Trees come down and block channels, some channels are filled with rock and sediment, new channels are formed and the flow through existing channels can move from one side of the river to the other. Because of this, boaters are sometimes unprepared for what lays ahead of them on their journey.

To ensure a safe trip preparedness is key, both before you leave for the river and after you get on it. Burton says, "Leave your ego at home." Don't think your are better or smarter than the river and have respect for its power. Because no two trips are ever the same there is a basic list of things people can do to make sure they are ready for their trip.

Check the weather

Check the US Geological Survey (USGS) Water Data website ( for river flows

Check dam release times and flows

Call the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (307) 326-5583

Call local outfitters to check current conditions

Know boating regulations (http://wgfd.wyo.goc)

Make sure someone knows where you are going on your trip

Stick to your plan and let someone know if you change it

Be familiar with the river you plan to raft or boat. Know the dangers

Be prepared to not have cell phone coverage and know the nearest places where help can be obtained

Have first aid and certified CPR training

You can never have too much information before you leave the boat ramp or dock. Burton suggests that it is a good idea to talk to other people at the put in and ask if they have any new information about the conditions where you will be boating.

It is also a good idea to have a safety talk with all of the members of your party. Make sure everybody knows how to use their personal flotation devices (PFDs or life jackets). PFDs should be well maintained and able to float the person that intends to use them. Regulations state that anyone under 12 years old has to wear their PFD at all times and older children and adults must keep their life jacket within arms reach.

Be prepared to get wet. This may sound innocuous, but cold water can induce shock and hypothermia even in the middle of summer. Make sure you are wearing quick-drying clothing and have something dry to cover up with if you do get wet. It is recommended that a dry bag with at least a rain jacket or a tarp be securely stored on each boat in a rafting party.

Moving water on a river is a whole different world than standing water on a lake. Even a very slow moving river exerts a tremendous amount of force on your body and the debris in the river. It's very difficult to stand in moving water that's only knee deep. "When we think that we'll fall into a river and easily hop back into the boat, it doesn't always work that way," says Burton. The current pulls your feet out from under you and pulls you away from safety.

Because of this everyone should know the basics of safety swimming in moving water. Keep your feet down stream and stay on your back if at all possible. Swim to shore, not a rock or log, as quickly as possible. One way to experiment with the force of moving water is to stand in a safe place along the river an slowly walk to a point up to your knees. A gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds. You can imagine the equivalent weight of hundreds or thousands of gallons of water pushing on you in an emergency situation.

While on the water:

Never boat alone.

Be sure your whitewater/boating skills are equal to the river conditions.

Be prepared for extremes in weather, especially cold. Know about the dangers of hypothermia.

Log jams can trap swimmers or boaters, steer clear of them well in advance.

Wear quick drying clothing

Be prepared for the cooling effects of the wind

Have a bag with a raincoat or a tarp to cover up with

Know where the rest of your boating party is at all times

Accidents should be called in to 911

Make sure all of your equipment is suited to the conditions of the body of water you will be boating on. Inspect your boat, PFDs, and all safety equipment, if it is not matched to the conditions expected, or in poor condition, don't go.

Something Biff Burton has noticed after rescuing people for over 25 years on the North Platte River is that even the most experienced people on the river occasionally have accidents, so he expects the least experienced people will most likely have an accident. Many people Burton has rescued have told him that it was their first trip on a river. They are putting their families and themselves at risk by underestimating the force of the river. Don't expect to be able to take your row boat out on a lake and get a feel for the oars and then be able to translate that to a river.

Navigating a river can be analogous to navigating a car through a city. It is best to plan your route as far ahead as possible to avoid hazards.

When we are learning to drive we are learning laws, rules of the road, and we are learning how to extend our body to that vehicle around us. It applies whether it is a car or a boat. We are learning how to turn, stop accelerate, look for hazards, and react to unanticipated situations. A boat with supplies and a few people can easily weigh 700 to 800 pounds and we are steering that with nothing more than our muscles and our brains.

Distractions are a big factor in river accidents. Don't try to row the boat and fish at the same time. All of your attention should be downstream, looking for the clues that the water gives you as to where the current is going to take you and what channel is best. The channel that you knew was safe a year ago may not be the best channel this year. People that float the river often know that. They usually float the river early in the season on a scouting trip looking for changes.

If you are involved in an accident or are witness to one, call 911. Remember that help is usually far away or will take a long time to get to you. Even if you are near a town, after the call is made for help emergency crews need to stage and make it to your location, which often has limited access.

Be prepared to rescue yourself first. If you are in need of rescue you are taking resources away from others that may need help.

Rescues are generally administered by the sheriff's office and county search and rescue teams. The Game and Fish Department is the agency that investigates and reports water craft incidents to the U.S. Coast Guard. There is a requirement to report boat accidents involving personal injury requiring more than first aid, or death. You must also report an accident involving damage amounting to more than $500.

When heading out for a day of boating you have to have your mind ready to make life and death decisions as soon as you push off from the boat ramp. Take your job seriously. Burton warns, "If you're the guy on the oars you're not there to party, you're not there to fish, you're not their to eat snacks, you're there to get your passengers safely downstream."


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