Unsanctioned event on St. Clair River happening Sunday

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Emergency agencies on the Canadian side of the St. Clair River are planning for the worst and hoping for the best Sunday when a flotilla of inflatable rafts is expected to leave shore for the annual summer float down.

A website for the Port Huron Float Down says this is the 40th anniversary for the unsanctioned event where hundreds of people climb on inflatables at Michigan’s Lighthouse Beach on Lake Huron at 1 p.m. to ride the current south on the St. Clair River some 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) to Chrysler Beach in Marysville, Mich.

Last year’s float down turned into an international rescue operation that attracted waves of media attention when high winds blew approximately 1,500 U.S. citizens, most without passports, to the Canadian shore at Sarnia.

They were helped from the water by emergency crews and others in Sarnia, loaded on city buses and driven over the Bluewater Bridge where they were handed to U.S. immigration officials in Michigan.

There were no fatalities but the rescue cost an estimated $280,000.

On Tuesday, representatives of agencies on the Canadian side of the river gathered at the Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue depot to provide a public briefing on plans for Sunday’s expected event, including a first-time Canadian version being promoted on social media for the same day and time.

“Together, your local first responders are working closely to ensure a co-ordinated, unified response to any emergencies throughout this year’s float down,” said Carol Launderville, communications adviser with the Canadian Coast Guard.

One difference this year is that there is a unified command with the U.S. Coast Guard and agencies on both sides of the border, said Jerry Thompson, with the Coast Guard’s search and rescue programs in Sarnia.

“We had two separate command posts last year,” he said.

“It created havoc for communications.”

There are expected to be 14 or 15 emergency boats on the water from the Canadian side, including the Canadian Coast Guard and its auxiliary, the RCMP, OPP and the Sarnia and Point Edward fire services.

“We’ve been planning since last year’s float down,” Thompson said.

“We’re all going to be ready to go for the day of the event.”

Jonathan Doan, deputy superintendent for Great Lakes search and rescue, said they are encouraging anyone taking part to be prepared, including wearing a personal floatation device (PFD) and having a float plan so friends or family on shore know when they’re entering the water and when they expect to be back on dry land.

“If you’re not prepared for the day, there is a good chance you could get in trouble,” Doan said.

Kathleen Getty, with search and rescue, has been on duty during the float down for approximately the last six years.

She said they’ve had to conduct searches in past years for people who have been reported missing, and she urged participants in the float down to stay with their group and not become separated.

“It’s important to ensure that you’re healthy, that you don’t have medical issues that could cause some problems when you are out on the water,” she added.

Exposure to sun, use of alcohol and the impact of the cold water are other concerns, Getty said.

“The water is very cold in Canada, no matter where you are,” she said.

“If you’re feeling any kind of discomfort, make sure you get to shore.”

And, Getty said they saw families out on the water last year, but she recommends against taking children on the float down.

“It’s not an event where you’re able to keep track of them, easily.”

Clive Worton, with the Coast Guard Auxiliary, urged participants to use a good quality raft and carry oars to help them reach shore.

Cheap rafts and inflatables can deflate quickly, he said.

“Usually within the first hour, a lot of those are deflating and people are left in the water,” he said.

Another issue is that participants can become dehydrated if they aren’t carrying enough water with them, Worton said.

“We’ve brought in a lot of people, we get them on the vessel for a rescue and they’re basically suffering from heat stroke and dehydrated, not just hypothermia,” he said.

OPP Sgt. Steve MacNally said, “We don’t condone the event, at all.”

Representatives of the other agencies at Tuesday’s briefing said they agreed.

The U.S. Coast Guard said it will establish a temporary regulation requiring minors under the age of 18 to wear life jackets during this year’s float down.

Doan said laws in Canada requiring vessels to have one PFD for every person on board don’t apply to inflatables and inner tubes float participants tend to use.

Because of that, Canadian officials are “strongly encouraging” participants to use life jackets or PFDs.

Terry Speed, officer in charge of the Coast Guards Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centre, said it will issue a notice to shipping this week about transit restrictions on the St. Clair River Sunday from noon to 8 p.m.

“No unauthorized vessels will be allowed on the St. Clair River and the Blue Water Bridge and Stag Island,” he said.

“That’s to ensure the safety of participants.”

Last year, when the river reopened on the evening of the float down, eight to 10 commercial vessels were waiting to move, Speed said.

Insp. Jeff Hodgson said Sarnia police officers will be onshore, supporting the RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency, and assisting with shoreline rescues.

American citizens who end up on the Canadian shore this year will be assembled at a collection point at Ferry Dock Hill, processed and returned to Michigan.

“One of the things we want to emphasize is that floaters should bring some identification,” such as a passport or NEXUS card, Hodgson said.

This year, city officials won’t transport rafts, inflatables and coolers along with wayward Americans who end up on the Canadian shore, he said.

Last year, it took approximately 19 trips by city buses to get everyone who came ashore over the Blue Water Bridge, but that could have been cut to just a dozen trips without the inner tubes and rafts the Americans were carrying back home with them, he said.

“This year we cannot accommodate that, and we will not,” Hodgson said.

Anyone requiring a ride back to the border can take a backpack, purse or other personal items with them, but coolers and rafts will have to be abandoned on the shore, he said.

Hodgson said social media posts indicate a Canadian version of the float down could leave Sunday from the shoreline at the water treatment plant or Canatara Park. He said city police will be at those locations and enforcing liquor laws.

“We want everybody to be safe,” he said.

Hodgson said the publicity from last year’s event may work both ways by attracting more participants while also raising awareness about safety.


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