- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—Half the fun of floating down the Yakima River on a hot sunny day, arms, legs and posterior dangling from an inner tube, is the freedom from a restrictive life jacket.

That’s just what Stacy Stoltenow and his friends and family were anticipating on a recent weekend float. But instead of cooling off in the river, they ended up high and dry on the banks.

Stoltenow said the group was preparing to launch at the Umtanum Creek Recreation Area when a Kittitas County sheriff’s deputy told them they could face $100 fines each for floating the river without life jackets.

Stoltenow said they were told they could rent life jackets from a vendor. But ultimately they canceled the float.

“It was pretty upsetting. We planned this thing for months,” Stoltenow said.

State law requires all “water vessels” to carry one water whistle, and one life jacket per person on board. Children 12 and younger are required to wear life jackets at all times, while everyone else can choose to wear them or not.

But the law defining vessels does not include inner tubes, inflatable mattresses or small rafts, among others.

That vague language allows law enforcement to develop their own interpretations, which can vary from county to county as local authorities tailor the meaning to specific conditions of their lakes and rivers, said Wade Alonzo, boating program manager for Washington’s Parks and Recreation Commission.

Kittitas County Undersheriff Clayton Myers said his department considers the intended use of the craft.

“So what we look at here is something commercially designed to be a vessel, such as a commercial white water raft, pontoon boats with rowing frames, large rafts with rowing frames,” he said.

Stoltenow said his group brought small, one- to three-person inflatable rafts and inner tubes. While Myers said his department would normally consider those exempt from the life-jacket requirement, he deferred to his deputy’s judgment at the time.

“If the deputy there concluded that what they were in was a vessel, the deputy is correct,” Myers said.

Sgt. James Scott of the Yakima County Sheriff Office’s marine patrol unit said his department looks at whether any part of the person’s body is in the water. No life jacket is required with an inner tube where the floater is sitting in the water, he said.

However, if the craft elevates the passengers and keeps them dry, Scott said it would be considered a “vessel,” triggering the life-jacket requirement. The fine for not complying in Yakima County is $87 per person.

Regardless of how the law is interpreted, safety experts agree that anyone floating the Yakima River should have a life jacket. While the Yakima River Canyon has no white water, the river can move swiftly and there are long stretches of riverbank covered with overhanging vegetation that can make it difficult to get out of the water if floaters are separated from their boat or inner tube.

Drownings, often associated with excessive drinking, are not unheard of.

Still, the vagueness of the law left Stoltenow frustrated.

“If we had known that they were going to interpret the code that way, then we would have brought life vests,” he said.

When temperatures returned to 100 degrees on July 19 after a week’s respite, floaters packed the put-in sites along the Yakima River and hit the water.

Most seemed to agree that kids under a certain age should wear life jackets, but that adults should be able to gauge the risk on their own.

“If you don’t know how to swim very well, you probably should have one, but I don’t think you should have to,” said Sarah Moats, 30, who was preparing to float at the Umtanum site.

Josh Bowen, 32, agreed. He was there with his two kids, ages 8 and 9, who were wearing life jackets for the trip. He and his family are originally from Alaska, he said, where life jackets are a must because of the risks posed by freezing cold water.

“For adults, if you’re going to be drinking, you probably should have one,” he said. “But adults are adults.”

“I don’t know about other adults, but I seem to get more buoyant as I get older,” he joked.

Mitch Mylar, 25, of Utah said he thought it ought to be at the “swimmers’ discretion,” but there should also be an age limit.

His friend Tyler Weedin, 24, of Selah thought only actual boats, such as those used by fly fishermen, should have a life jacket requirement.

“Don’t be an idiot,” he said. “If you can’t swim, don’t get on the water.”

But they agreed with Kindal Person, 24, also of Selah, who thought carrying a couple life jackets per group sounded like a wise precaution.

“Maybe just having them with you, not wearing them … like if your raft pops,” Person suggested.

As for Stoltenow, he said he knows the river can be dangerous, but didn’t know his party would run into problems with law enforcement, as they’ve floated the river times before. Vessel and craft specifications are not listed at launch sites.

Stoltenow said the deputy told him the life jacket laws had been in effect for 30 years.

Myers said the burden of figuring out whether or not a craft is a vessel is on the people floating the river. They should call the Kittitas Dispatch Center and talk with a marine patrol officer, he said.

“If they’re going to start enforcing this now, then let people know,” Stoltenow said.

Some laws around the state are much more straight-forward. Spokane County has had an ordinance on the books for years mandating anyone on moving water wear life jackets. The Spokane River can be much more treacherous for floaters, however.

While a similar life-jacket requirement might simplify things for Yakima and Kittitas County, Myers was reluctant to support it.

“I don’t think it’s our job to control people, and I don’t think its our job to assume all of the responsibility for everybody,” he said.

Though he was reluctant to see it encoded in state law, Myers did have some final thoughts on the matter: “We always recommend taking life jackets with you. There’s no downside, take them with you.”


(c)2015 Yakima Herald-Republic (Yakima, Wash.)

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