California Boating Fatalities and Water Rescues on a Rise

Contact:  Gloria Sandoval (916) 651-5692

June 29, 2011

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - As predicted by the Department of Boating Waterways (DBW), this summer is shaping up to be a dangerous one for water enthusiasts, particularly for rivers. More boaters have died in swift water river accidents in the first six months of 2011 than any other comparable period on record.

With water temperatures being extremely cold, outdoor enthusiasts can become incapacitated in just 10 minutes, to the point that the muscles in their limbs stop working and they will no longer be able to swim or rescue themselves. 

“Outdoor enthusiasts in, on and around the water must use caution and be prepared,” stated DBW’s Acting Director Lucia Becerra. “Many rivers will be running faster and higher this 4th of July weekend than in the past years. Water levels in lakes will also be higher, masking underwater hazards that were exposed in previous years.”

The biggest safety concern now is the use of flotation devices such as lightweight rafts which may be designed for swimming pools or calm waters. These flotation devices are dangerous. They can easily lose air or be punctured by debris or tree branches. Use of these types of devices is strongly discouraged during this period of high, swift and cold water conditions.

Knowing what to do in case of a water immersion, understanding the effects of cold water and wearing a life jacket are critical in improving chances of survival. Below are some tips that water enthusiasts should follow to improve their chances of survival:

Know the law

  • A life jacket must be carried for each person on board a boat.
  • Every child under 13 must wear a life jacket when on a boat.
  • Every person on board a personal watercraft (popularly known as jet skis) and any person being towed behind a vessel must wear a life jacket.
  • All life jackets must be Coast Guard-approved.
  • It is against the law to operate a boat or water ski with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or more. You can be arrested even when your BAC is less than 0.08 percent if conditions are deemed to be unsafe.

Plan ahead

  • Become knowledgeable about local conditions such as currents, rapids, flow levels, weather, and hazards, including low-head dams and unrunnable rapids.
  • Make sure you have the required equipment on your vessel.
  • File a float plan. The chances of successfully locating an overdue boat are much greater if rescue agencies have certain facts about the boat trip.
  • Swift water information and guides for some of California’s rivers are available on DBW’s Web site.

Know the water

  • The water may look calm on the top, but river currents are usually strong beneath the water’s surface that can carry you away from your safety zone.
  • Many unseen obstacles can be lurking below the water’s surface. Swift water can make these obstacles even more treacherous.
  • An unknown rapid should never be run without first scouting it thoroughly from shore. If in doubt, carry watercraft or cargo over land to avoid river obstacles or hazards.
  • Swimming in open water is more difficult than in a swimming pool – people tire more quickly and can get into trouble.

Know what to do in case of a water immersion

  • Swift water: If you do end up in the river, point your feet downstream. This helps your legs to come in contact with floating debris or rocks first instead of your head.  Stay calm and try to make your way to the shore while floating. Be wary of branches in the river. It may be tempting to reach for a branch, but you can become entangled in the branches and drown. Look for a clear place to get to shore.
  • Calm water: If your boat capsizes and you are in cold water, get as far out of the water as possible by climbing onto any floating object, such a boat’s hull. This may help prevent heat loss from your body, especially if the temperature is warm and the winds are calm. If you cannot get out of the water, keep your head out of the water to limit heat loss. Curl into a ball or huddle with other passengers and restrict movement of arms and legs to further help limit heat loss.
  • Hypothermia: Hypothermia in the early stages can easily be reversed by vigorously exercising to generate body heat and limiting exposure to further cold. High energy foods and warm liquids also help (no caffeine or alcohol).  Except in mild cases, seek medical help as improper rewarming can cause complications or even death.

Parental Supervision

  • Actively supervise children in and around open bodies of water, giving them your undivided attention.
  • Appoint a designated “water watcher”, taking turns with other adults.
  • Teach children that swimming in open water is not the same as swimming in a pool.  They need to be aware of uneven surfaces, river currents, ocean undertow and changing weather.

For more information on boating and water safety, please visit


The Department of Boating and Waterways enhances public access to California’s waterways and promotes on-the-water safety through programs funded by vessel registration fees, boating fuel tax dollars and boating facility construction loan payments.