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By Nicholas Grube
Triplicate staff writer
As temperatures rise and more people enter the waterways and comb the beaches in search of recreation, the chance for tragedy increases. Three fishermen have already drowned in Del Norte County waters this year.
And though no one expects to plunge into potentially life-threatening waters, there is only a limited time one can survive the dangerous torrents.
"When you're talking about survivability in the water for a period of time," U.S. Coast Guard Senior Chief Leif Wigman-Nilsson said, "it's How long can somebody survive in the water?'"
The primary factor in determining a person's survivability is based on hypothermia tables, he said, because Northcoast ocean water is especially cold, averaging around 54 degrees. But, Wigman-Nilsson said, "There are a lot of factors that go into making that determination."
Sea conditions, body size, age, and the type of survival gear someone has when they fall into the water are a few of the many variables that are entered into a Coast Guard computer model to calculate survivability rates. The numerical value comes, not as a percentage, but rather as a time frame, which can range from hours to days, depending on the variables.
"That will give us a number that is a working number, but by no means is that the threshold," Wigman-Nilsson said. "If the model says four hours, that's not the threshold that we will stop searching at."
Instead, Wigman-Nilsson said the Coast Guard will respond with all viable and available assets and search an entire area until they feel that they would have located the person. Even then, the Coast Guard continues to search for a missing person.
"There are other factors involved (in survivability)," he said, "such as the will to live."
This factor, he said, has been known to keep people alive well beyond what a survivability model has predicted. Hence the reason why, Wigman-Nilsson said, "We continue to search well beyond that (survivability number)."
However, at a certain point, Coast Guard search and rescue operations are called off because of what Wigman-Nilsson calls "negligible returns" for example, a person who might have a four-hour survivability rate has been missing for more than two days and is presumed dead. The Coast Guard then makes the determination to stop the search.
The Del Norte County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue, on the other hand, continues to search for missing persons, even if it is just a search for a body.
"We at Search and Rescue really don't change our mode of operation once its definitely gone past the rescue. We still keep searching the same way," Search and Rescue Coordinator Terry McNamara said. "We keep looking until we find a person. We're going out and still trying to find the body."
His search and rescue teams head the river operations, and receive assistance from other organizations, including the Coast Guard and California Highway Patrol.
"If you fall in the river, you have to treat it like it's a life- threatening situation and do everything you can to get out," McNamara said.
He said the first thing anyone can do whether in the river or the ocean is wear a personal flotation device or life jacket. Of the three people who drowned in Del Norte County this year, he said, none of them was wearing a floatation device.
"I'm not convinced that any of them could have been saved," he said, "but I know it could have helped."
If you do fall into the river while wearing a floatation device and are rushing downstream, you should float on your back with your feet aimed down the river, McNamara said. This will allow you to push off rocks and other debris so you don't hit your head. He said you'll want to float like this until you see a bank or an eddy (usually located behind a large rock or obstacle) that you can swim toward.
If stopped at an eddy, which will shield you from the currents, you can evaluate your situation.
"Survey the surroundings," McNamara said. "Look to see if the best thing to do is stay put. Assess the situation you're in before you make a move."
Rivers in this area can be especially dangerous now because of the recent snowmelt, said Pam Moore, chairwoman of the Water Safety Coalition of Northwestern California said.
"This time of year is particularly bad, when the waters are swift and strong and coldest," she said. "They're always swift and cold up here, though."
The Water Safety Coalition is an interagency group of professionals who discuss how to prevent tragedies from happening in the water.
"People can get into trouble very quickly, and people could drown very quickly," Moore said, so people need to be aware of what to do in every situation.
"The bigger issue here is sneaker waves," Moore said of large, unexpected waves that crash along the shore. "And that does get people in the Northcoast area."
Sneaker waves can knock a person over and drag them out into ocean. The area where these waves crash is called the surf zone, which Wigman-Nilsson said, is also the danger zone.
"If you get caught in the surf, that's extremely dangerous and there's a high likelihood of not being able to survive," he said, even for strong swimmers. "The whole ideal is to stay out of the surf zone and don't get pulled into it."
However, Wigman-Nilsson said, "If you do wind up in there, don't panic and don't fight the wave" because you don't want to succumb to exhaustion, and the waves could push you back to shore. But, he said, the chance of survival is still low.
When taken by a river current, undertow or riptide, though, a person has more options.
"You can't fight the current," McNamara said. "Go laterally with the current ... and parallel with the beach, and the current will eventually stop."
If you work with the current, the current will dissipate and allow a chance to swim back to shore, he said
But the most important thing anyone can do is keep calm, McNamara said. "Right at the top of the list in any of these situations is Don't panic.'"
You've just been caught in a riptide. To increase your chances of surviving:
Allow the current to carry you out to sea.
Swim parallel to the shoreline, until the current eases.
When the current dissipates, swim toward the shore.
You've just fallen into a river. To increase your chances of surviving:
Float on your back.
Point your feet downstream so you can look where you're heading and push off rocks and debris.
Search for an eddy or bank where you can swim.
If stopped in an eddy, assess the situation before making a move. If it's too dangerous, stay where you are.