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Boozy river party has first responders preparing for the worst

Published on

Jake Romphf & George Mathewson

Two years ago more than a dozen agencies and organizations had to pitch in to rescue and transport 1,500 U.S. citizens who washed ashore in Sarnia after a Port Huron ‘float down’ went terribly awry.

People adrift on inflatable mats and rings, many of them intoxicated and without ID, became helpless when strong winds blew them off course in the unsanctioned event.

The controversial float down returns again on Sunday, Aug. 19, and first responders say they’re prepared for the worst.

Even last year in much better conditions 168 people needed assistance on the water, and some again drifted ashore in Sarnia.

“It’s a very hectic event,” said Greg Birdsell, a Canadian Coast Guard search and rescuer. “It’s a long day for responders, but we’re out there to keep people safe.”

Another Coast Guard search and rescuer, Mandy Bartley, recalled the 2016 float down as confusing and dangerous.

“You just saw swarms of people everywhere. They were cold, there was a lot of panic,” said Barley, whose boat lifted about 40 people from the water.

“They’re heavy, they’re fatigued and they’re scared.”

Sarnia Police, RCMP and Canadian border patrol officers will be ready to deal with displaced participants. Canadians who float down this side of the river and come ashore will be let go. Stranded Americans will be screened and provided an opportunity to voluntarily return to the U.S.; otherwise they will be processed by the Canada Border Services Agency.

Sarnia Police Const. Giovanni Sottosanti said anyone intoxicated in public or causing mischief will be arrested on the spot.

The St. Clair River will be closed that day from noon to 8 p.m. Coast Guard vessels will prohibit both pleasure and commercial traffic from entering from north of the Bluewater bridge to north of Stag Island.

The Sarnia boat launch will be closed and signs explaining the restrictions posted at local marinas and boat launches mid-week prior.

The Canadian Coast Guard and Sarnia first responders will have about 20 vessels on the water, with a helicopter circling above. Another 30 vessels will be in position on the U.S. side.

Despite the risk — a 19-year-old drowned in 2014 after leaving his raft to swim and countless injured — only about 20% of last year’s participants wore a lifejacket.

“By wearing a life jacket you give us more time to help save you,” Birdsell said.

The Canadian Coast Guard strongly advises people not to participate but if they do to take the following precautions.

* Wear a government-approved life jacket or personal flotation device.

* Use paddles to help you steer and signal others.

* Dress for cold water. Hypothermia sets in rapidly.

* File a “Float Plan” with someone who can notify authorities if you don’t check-in at the scheduled time.

* Use the buddy system and keep an eye on each other.

* Mark your floatation device with your phone number. Unmanned ones are treated as a search and rescue mission.

* And don’t consume alcohol or drugs before or during the event.



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