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Sarnians plan their own river ‘float down,’ officials worried

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Troy Shantz and George Mathewson

The Coast Guard is bracing for double trouble after an anonymous group in Sarnia announced it plans to join the Port Huron ‘float down’ with a Canadian version on Aug. 20.

The strong current of the St. Clair River combined with a large number of participants, alcohol consumption, chilly water and a lack of lifejackets will create a difficult emergency response scenario, warned Carol Launderville, spokeswoman for the Canadian Coast Guard.

“The float down remains an unsanctioned marine event and poses risks to the participants.”

Last year’s Port Huron-to-Marysville float down went terribly wrong after strong winds pushed 1,500 U.S. residents across the St. Clair River to the Canadian shore.

More than a dozen border and emergency organizations took part in the rescue and return of the partiers, many of whom arrived shivering, intoxicated and without any documentation.

Sarnia’s float down is set to begin Sunday from under the Blue Water Bridge and like its Port Huron counterpart it is an unsanctioned event without an official organizer.

Requests for comment from The Journal went unanswered but by press time more than 1,000 individuals had expressed interest on Facebook.

One Sarnia resident planning to hit the water this weekend is Daniel Harding. He said a float down on this side of the river is an untapped opportunity for the city.

“I believe this could be a great tourist attraction,” he said.

“I would like to see a float down festival (over) three days.”

Various agencies have tried to kibosh the event, which in 2014 saw a 19-year-old man drown after he left his raft to go swimming.

Last year, the Coast Guard and other emergency workers responded to a variety of injuries and hypothermia cases on the water.

Some participants were unaccounted for at the end of the day, prompting costly search and rescue efforts.

“Floats and pool toys are not designed to handle any great amount of wind and waves and can be easily swamped or capsized,” Launderville said.

“Sudden changes in the weather can occur without warning.”

Both countries halt all traffic in the river during the float down, which is a sore spot with the shipping companies, said Capt. George Haynes of the Lakes Pilot Association in Port Huron.

“We feel it’s reckless and a big cost to industry,” he said, adding 13 freighters were forced to anchor all day after a participant went missing one year.

Float downs are a long-standing tradition on the St. Clair. The Port Huron event was nixed officially in 1988 for safety reasons, resurrected in 2008 and cancelled two years later over legal liability fears. Ever since, it has been an unofficial event spread on social media.

The Canadian Coast Guard strongly advises people not to participate, but if they do they should 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.

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



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