Stories & Features

Many of us aren't as prepared around water as we think

Image of an inflatable boat on Buntzen Lake
Buntzen Lake's beauty and proximity to so many people in the Vancouver area make it BC Hydro’s most popular recreation site. Two recent drownings at the lake were the first in over a decade, prompting BC Hydro to issue a new report on risky behaviour around water, with tips on how to stay safe.

In the wake of a sobering BC Hydro report, advice from a water rescue expert

As another Monday morning arrived, Trevor Bowkett was back to the relative grind of his day job. But the rush of the weekend – a couple days spent training in swift water rescue techniques on the Chilliwack River – was still in his head. It may have been mid-July, but after a rainy start to summer, big water was very much still in play.

"Oh yeah, it was super fun," says Bowkett, president of volunteer-driven South Fraser Search and Rescue (SFSAR), a recipient of a 2020 BC Hydro community grant. "I probably swam 10 km of the river, something like that. It was great to get in there and play around for sure."

Here in B.C., we love our water, and we love to play in it. It powers our province with clean and renewable electricity from hydroelectric dams. And our lakes, ocean, rivers, and pools are at, or near the top of our summer fun hit lists. But a recent BC Hydro report on water safety suggests many of us take too many risks around water.

Among the report's highlights:

  • In recent years, BC Hydro has recorded an increase in drownings and near drownings at its recreation sites.
  • Two recent drownings at BC Hydro's Buntzen Lake recreation site were the first in over a decade.
  • Almost 30% of British Columbians say they have had a near drowning experience, and 53% have witnessed another person in the water in distress.
  • Nearly 50% confess to going in the water under the influence of alcohol or marijuana.
  • About 20% admit to swimming in areas they knew they were not supposed to be in.
  • More than 40% of parents acknowledge being somewhat distracted when their children are in the water.
  • Many admit to not using personal flotation devices when participating in their favourite water activities, including 24% of boaters, 27% of kayakers, 28% of canoers and 58% of tubers.

Risky behaviour around water can be deadly. So we offer a few things to consider as you head for the water, with a handy assist from our search and rescue expert Bowkett. And if you're interested in becoming a search and rescue volunteer, the SFSAR and other B.C. groups would love to train you in the art of search and rescue.

1. Out of practice? The swimming lessons of 20 years ago might not be enough

A lot of us overestimate just how well we swim. The BC Hydro report found that 85% of British Columbians believe they're experienced swimmers, but the facts don't back that up. More than six in 10 of us are in the water only a few times each summer, 10% have never completed a single swimming lesson, and about 85% haven't had a formal lesson in 10 years or more.

Do an honest evaluation of your swimming abilities (and your fitness level). Before you swim in that river, ask yourself just how long you might last if swept away by a strong current.

2. Never leave children unsupervised, in or near the water

Children and non-swimmers should always wear a personal flotation device (PFD). Make sure it's a certified PFD. Unless an experienced swimmer is close by and paying full attention, a noodle, water wings or novelty floatie doesn't count.

3. Bring your life jacket, make sure it fits... and wear it

"Make sure you have one jacket for all the members on your boat, not just for one or two people," says Bowkett. "And make sure they're the right size, and that you're wearing them right."

The latest Canadian Drowning Report (2019) [PDF] from the Lifesaving Society reflects this. Of all the drowning cases in Canada where it was known whether the victim was wearing a life jacket, more than 80% of those killed weren't wearing a PFD.

4. Take a whistle with you, and attach it to your life jacket

Bowkett is a big proponent of emergency preparation for boaters. And while a first aid kit is important, an often forgotten component is a whistle. Choose a non-metallic pea-less whistle, and consider attaching it to your PFD, so it will be there when you really need it. "If it's on your PFD, you won't have to search for it in that moment of desperation," he says.

5. Only swim or boat in waters you're comfortable with

Are you a bit concerned that the current's too strong, there might be bad weather on the way, or that the water below your cliff jump might be a bit shallow? Summer brings out the bravado, and it can kill us. When in doubt, don't take the risk. Swimming, by the way, accounted for 31% of all water-related fatalities between 2007 and 2016 in Canada.

6. Take care when hiking, biking or doing anything near water

One of the most surprising facts in the 2019 Canadian Drowning Report [PDF] is that walking, running, or playing near water account for 14% of drownings. And fishing is right behind at 13%.

Keep in mind that water levels on lakes and rivers can change quickly and unexpectedly, which at the very least may cause your feet to get wet, or could lead to something more serious. Natural bodies of water can also have sudden drop-offs and unstable ground surrounding them, which creates risk of tripping or falling into the water.

7. If you're operating a boat with any kind of motor, you need a boating license

Decades ago, you needed zero training – at least legally – to pilot a pleasure craft in Canada. The regulations today reflect the risk, and the importance of demonstrated knowledge of the basics. There's no minimum age limit for taking the Transport Canada online exam, which costs just under $40, but there are age limits for boating operation based on the power of a motor. For instance, no one under 16 can operate a boat powered with more than a 40 horsepower motor.

8. If you've indulged in alcohol or cannabis, stay on shore

The BC Hydro report shows that nearly 50% of those surveyed admitted to going into the water under the influence of something other than the sheer love of water. The Canadian Drowning Report found alcohol or drugs was a factor in 47% of all drowning deaths in young adults, and 35% of all boating deaths.

Related:

About BC Hydro's community grants program

Each summer, BC Hydro provides community grants to B.C. non-profit and charitable organizations. This year, 79 grants were awarded to community-based projects, for a total of more than $209,000 in funding for community groups across the province.

Grants are given out in three focus areas: building the workforce of tomorrow, safety education, and developing smart energy ideas. Learn more about grant criteria and application deadlines.