Coast Guard urges safety for Upper Niagara River float down

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

BUFFALO, New York — The U.S. Coast Guard and multiple state and local agencies are advising the boating public of concerns regarding a non-permitted marine event known as FloaTilla 9 Float Down potentially taking place on the Upper Niagara River from Isle View Park to Gratwick Park starting at 12 p.m. Sunday.

This potential float down gathering may pose significant and unusual hazards to participants to include: fast-moving current; large number of participants; possible lack of life jacket wear; alcohol consumption; challenging weather conditions such as wind, thunderstorms, and heat; water temperature; close proximity to Niagara Falls; and limited rescue resources.

In 2014, Port Huron, Michigan, first responders assisted 119 participants in a similar event who were in danger of drowning, getting caught on dangerous obstructions and pilings or drifting into the navigable channel.

Unfortunately, despite all of their efforts, a teenager – who was an experienced water skier and swimmer – drowned during the event.

Those who do participate in this gathering, despite local, state, and federal safety advisories, are strongly encouraged to take the following precautions:

  • Regardless of age or ability to swim, participants, especially children, are highly encouraged to wear an appropriately-sized U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket.  In 2015, 119 people in kayaks and canoes drowned, and 85 percent of those who died were not wearing a life jacket.

  • 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 with them when the event wraps up.  Electronic float plans can be filed quickly and easily using the United States Coast Guard smartphone app, available on the iTunes App Store and Google Play.

  • Bring waterproof bags for personal items and identification.

  • Write your contact information (name, address, phone, etc) on your raft in permanent ink to aid search and rescue efforts should you become separated from your raft.

  • Never go alone. Use the buddy system, keep an eye on each other, and immediately report incidents of distress to the nearest first responder.

  • Stay near shore and remain out of the navigation channel.

  • Do not exit your raft until you are at a safe location to exit the river.  The current in the river can easily separate a raft and person; thus, stranding a person away from the shore.

  • 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.

  • Refrain from consuming alcohol prior to or during the event.

Specific concerns for the Upper Niagara River are low water temperatures, heavy boating traffic in the area and strong river currents averaging 8.5 to 11.5 mph that may push participants away from the intended event course into the Tonawanda Island East Channel or beyond the Gratwick Park end point towards Niagara Falls.

Lower water temperatures pose a hazard to participants.  The mid-July water temperature in the Upper Niagara River averages 70 degrees.  Immersion in water below approximately 70 degrees can lead to hypothermia, impaired physical motor functions and reduced ability to self-help or swim. Early signs of hypothermia include shivering and loss of coordination and judgment.

The float down’s course travels past the Tonawanda Island East Channel, which poses a major safety concern.  If rafters accidently enter the East Channel, the swing bridge on the south side of the channel presents a safety hazard, and people may get pushed directly into a bridge support or stuck in the areas surrounding the supports.  In addition, the current in the channel is generally faster than in the Upper Niagara River.  If participants enter the East Channel, they should not get out of their raft because swimmers in the past have not been able to successfully swim against the strong current, which has resulted in multiple drownings.

The same day the float down is scheduled, two U.S. Coast Guard-permitted marine events are also taking place near the Upper Niagara River: Canal Fest and Hydros & Hot Rods.  Due to these events, there will be a higher amount of motor vessel traffic on the Upper Niagara River.

Additionally, since the Canal Fest and Hydros & Hot Rods are permitted marine events, there will be dedicated first responders on scene to exclusively monitor the safety and security of those participants.  These permitted events will limit the resources available to respond to the un-permitted float down” gathering event.

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