Sunday, May 20, 2018
Public safety

Spring poses special dangers to boaters and swimmers in Tampa Bay waters

On a clear spring day, Brian McClure was boating with friends in the smooth waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Then the weather turned against them.

Winds picked up. So did the water. Waves up to 4 feet rocked the bow as they headed to shore.

But it was still sunny outside. There were no dark clouds, no sign that the weather was about to turn what was a calm day on the water into an ordeal.

"It's still a bit of shock to people," McClure said, "even when you know it's coming."

That's because McClure, a meteorologist at Bay News 9, knew the forecast and knew how quickly strong winds can bring rough waters in the spring.

That's what happens when cold fronts left over from winter continue to meld with the recently warmed air and water, McClure said, producing the strong gusts and rip currents that make it dangerous to swim or kayak or canoe or paddleboard in the open water.

Those unpredictable winds should be the top concern of anyone planning to venture into the water this spring, according to local safety experts.

"Weather and winds are the biggest factors in how we're going to prepare for what our day is going to be like and how we'll choose the best course of action to warn the public," said Clearwater water safety supervisor Patrick Brafford, who directs the city's lifeguards.

Two unrelated incidents off Fort De Soto Park at the end of April highlight the dangers the public can face as the weather warms and people return to the water.

Tampa paddleboarder Jeffrey Comer, 50, has been missing since April 28 when his board was found near the north entrance of the Manatee River and his car found near Fort De Soto Park. The search was called off, but officials are still hoping to find Comer.

The next day, 56-year-old Michelle Dresser of Clearwater was found face down in the waters near Fort De Soto's North Beach picnic area, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. She apparently drowned.

While both incidents may have nothing to do with the wind and weather, they do show that the public should always be cautious in the water, even during as placid a season as spring.

"In the summertime it's usually more predictable," McClure said. "All of a sudden you see dark clouds and it's common sense to want to get out of the water and wait out the storm.

"The problem we see this time of year is that people won't watch the forecast. They have no idea that all of a sudden, 20-knot winds will come in."

Gusts can make life difficult for swimmers in several ways. They can create currents parallel to the shore that sweep swimmers along with them — and away from their part of the beach.

Even more dangerous are strong rip currents that can carry swimmers away from shore, and potentially exhaust those who try to fight.

"You don't try to swim against it," said Fort De Soto Park supervisor Jim Wilson. "You … swim parallel until the current lessens its hold on you. Don't panic. That's the main thing."

Anyone taking a boat, kayak, canoe or paddleboard should also take the precaution of making a float plan, the experts warned. That way someone knows where you're headed and can call for help if you don't make it back in time.

And anyone planning a day on the water needs to check the forecast, experts said, as well as the lifeguard flags that indicate swimming conditions.

Michael Schenker, a paddleboard instructor who works at Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park, offered this advice for people headed to the water this spring:

"I think the biggest thing is just knowing and respecting your limitations," he said. "What you can and can't do, where you can and can't go, based on your experience and equipment."

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