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Thousands on hand for safer, quieter float down: officials

Tara Jeffrey A sea of colourful inflatables, paddle boards, tubes and kayaks flooded the St. Clair River Sunday for the annual Port Huron Float Down, where ideal weather conditions attracted some 4,000 people, officials say.
A group of Canadian floaters at the annual float down on the St. Clair River. (Carol Churchman photo)

Tara Jeffrey

A sea of colourful inflatables, paddle boards, tubes and kayaks flooded the St. Clair River Sunday for the annual Port Huron Float Down, where ideal weather conditions attracted some 4,000 people, officials say.

“It was a pretty uneventful day for us,” Canadian Coast Guard Deputy Superintendent of Search and Rescue Kathleen Getty told The Journal.

And that’s a good thing.

Some colourful inflatables were spotted along the St. Clair River during the annual float down event, Sunday. (Carol Churchman photo)

Getty said ideal temperatures and wind conditions kept participants “comfortable” and prevented them from veering off-course.

Roughly 500 participants launched from Sarnia’s waterfront to join their U.S. neighbours for the annual event that sees floaters cruise downriver the third Sunday of August.

On the American side, participants launch at Lighthouse Beach for the 12km course to Marysville, Michigan.

“On the Canadian side, we recorded about 50 ‘lives assisted,’” Getty said, adding that one individual wound up in a life-threatening situation.

“We saved one life of a person, who, without our intervention, likely would have passed.”

The individual, who was not wearing a PFD (personal flotation device), had consumed alcohol and indicated to officials they were unable to stay afloat, Getty added.

A Canadian Coast Guard vessel patrols the water during the annual float down event on the St. Clair River. (Carol Churchman photo)

Both Lambton OPP and Sarnia Police told The Journal there were no issues throughout the day.

Overall, Getty said more participants are taking safety precautions than in previous years.

“I do think the message is being heeded,” she said, adding that more people are wearing PFDs, and writing their contact information on devices and lifejackets.

“Four-thousand people is a lot of people to keep your eyes on,” she added, pointing to seven Canadian Coast Guard vessels deployed for the event, along with assistance from the Ontario Provincial Police, RCMP, volunteers with the PointSar Marine Rescue team, along with agencies in the U.S.

A command centre set up on shore included CBSA, Lambton EMS and fire officials.
Canadian officials were on hand along Sarnia's waterfront during the annual float down event, including (from left): Lambton EMS Paramedic Grant Purdy, Canadian Coast Guard Response Specialists Kelly Hagan and Taylor Lalonde, and Lambton EMS Paramedic Brian McNair. (Submitted photo)

“We wish we didn’t have to — this is an unsanctioned event and it’s very dangerous — but we need to ensure that nothing catastrophic happens,” she said.

Last week, a joint statement was issued from the Canadian/U.S. Coast Guard leadership, warning against participating in the event — citing high risk factors like fast-moving current, weather conditions, water temperature, the large number of participants, alcohol consumption, lack of life jackets and limited rescue resources — that can result in “serious injuries or fatalities.”

The annual event also prompts the closure of all boat traffic — from the Bluewater Bridge, south to Stag Island — from 12 noon to 7 p.m.

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 — not even COVID-19 halted the event, though it was a scaled-down crowd in 2020.

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.

In 2016, the Port Huron-to-Marysville float down went sideways after strong winds pushed 1,500 U.S. residents across the St. Clair River to the Canadian shore.

Emergency officials assist U.S. "floaters" at Ferry Dock Hill after being blown ashore during Sunday's Port Huron Float Down.Photo courtesy, Jerry Baljeu

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.

As a show of appreciation, a Marysville, Michigan man started a Go Fund Me to compensate Sarnia for the rescue. The city donated the $4,246 (Canadian) collected by Joe Wiedenbeck (net GoFundMe administrative fees) to a pair of charities: the local branch of the Canadian Red Cross and the Port Huron chapter of the Salvation Army.

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