Coast Guard urges safety, establishes safety zone for Port Huron Float Down

Float Down 2013 photo by flicker user Kristy.  Creative Commons license

Float Down 2013 photo by flicker user Kristy. Creative Commons license

DETROIT — The U.S. Coast Guard, Canadian Coast Guard, and multiple state and local agencies are advising the boating public that the St. Clair River will be secured to all motor vessel traffic between the hours of 12 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sunday during the un-sanctioned marine event known as the Port Huron Float Down.

The U.S. Coast Guard has established a temporary regulation requiring minors under the age of 18 to wear life jackets during the event due to the high number of rafters expected to transit the 7.5 mile course on the St. Clair River between Lighthouse Beach in Port Huron, Michigan, and Chrysler Beach in Marysville, Michigan.

Float Down poses significant and unusual hazards given the fast-moving current, large number of participants, lack of life jackets, alcohol consumption, potentially challenging weather conditions, water temperature, and limited rescue resources.  Those who do participate despite local, state, federal, and international safety advisories are strongly encouraged to take the following precautions:

  • If you insist on bringing children, they must wear an appropriately sized, U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket at all times, and regardless of age or ability to swim, you are encouraged to wear an appropriately sized, U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket at all times as well.
  • File a “Float Plan” with someone not participating who can report your intentions to the U.S. Coast Guard in the event you do not check-in at the scheduled time. Electronic float plans can be filed quickly and easily using the United States Coast Guard smartphone app, available on the App Store and Google Play.
  • Bring waterproof bags for personal items and identification.
  • Never go alone. Use the buddy system, keep an eye on each other, and immediately report incidents of distress to the nearest first responder.
  • Refrain from consuming alcohol immediately prior to or during the event.
  • Dress appropriately for the weather and cold water. Use a raft that limits your immersion in the water and can be controlled with oars or paddles.
  • Stay near shore and remain out of the navigation channel.

In 2014, first responders assisted 119 Float Down participants who were in danger of drowning, getting caught on dangerous obstructions and pilings, or from drifting into the navigable channel.  Unfortunately, despite those efforts, a teenager, who was an experienced water skier and swimmer, drowned during the event.

Lower water temperatures pose an additional hazard. The mid-August water temperature in the St. Clair River averages in the high 60s (Fahrenheit).  Immersion in water below approximately 70 degrees can lead to hypothermia, impaired physical motor functions, and a reduced ability to self-help or swim. Early signs of hypothermia include shivering and loss of coordination and judgment.

Strong river currents under the Blue Water Bridge and westerly winds have pushed participants beyond the navigable channel and onto the Canadian shoreline leaving them subject to Canadian border security and stranded, often without identification, money and means of communication.

In past years, southerly winds have also slowed rafters’ progress, leading to more than six hours of time on the river from Port Huron to Marysville.  This extended time on the St. Clair River, with limited public access locations for landing prior to Marysville, makes people even more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, hypothermia, and other challenging environmental conditions.

All traffic requesting to enter the safety zone must receive approval from the patrol commander, Coast Guard Station Port Huron, via VHF channel 21A.

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