Rescuers ramp up fleet ahead of Port Huron Float Down

Unexpected wind pushed more than 1,500 Americans off course during the planned — but unsanctioned — Port Huron Float Down, an annual summer party often involves thousands of people riding inner tubes and other devices along the St. Clair River.

Talks of a Canadian version of the event could complicate things, say authorities

People celebrate as they start the Float Down at Lighthouse Beach in Port Huron, Mich., Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016. Thousands of people gathered for the event and floated down the St. Clair River, but many ended up blowing onto Canadian shores — without ID. (Mark R. Rummel/The Times Herald via AP)

Erin Armstrong survived the "unorganized chaos" of last year's Port Huron Float Down — and she'll be armed with a paddle again Sunday when she and thousands of others board boats, tubes and all manner of inflatable watercraft to make their way down the St. Clair River.

The 21-year-old was in the middle of the floating fiesta last year when rogue gusts of wind pushed a section of the unsanctioned armada across the waterway, washing them up illegally in Canada.

While hundreds floundered in the waves between southern Ontario and eastern Michigan, Armstrong and her family were prepared: It wasn't their first float down.

"They [didn't] bring a paddle, which is a rookie mistake," she said of watching her fellow Americans make an unplanned crossing into international waters. "As much as it is a fun event, it's important to be responsible."

Erin Armstrong is a veteran of the Port Huron Float Down. The 21-year-old said the key to surviving is planning ahead. (Erin Armstrong)

The U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards have gone to great lengths to avoid a repeat of last year's river rescue, when swarms of Americans ended up beached on Canadian soil, many of them clinging to their flotation devices and needing treatment for hypothermia.

Coast guard crews have partnered with police and firefighters to come up with a combined water fleet of 65 boats and two helicopters. On land, those crews will be assisted by paramedics, Transport Canada, the Canadian Red Cross and the Royal Canadian Air Force.

"It's a large group of agencies that are pitching in to keep this event as safe as possible," said Lt. Jodie Knox, a spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection boat helps floaters during the annual Port Huron Float Down on the St. Clair River. West winds blew most boaters toward the Canadian shore and they had to be pulled back to the U.S. (Mark R. Rummel/The Times Herald/The Associated Press)

Kathleen Getty has pulled more than 100 people out of the water during the annual Float Down over the past six years. Last year alone, the Canadian search-and-rescue training officer helped at least 25 people to safety.

"We had individuals who were very cold," she said. "Some of them were expressing chest pains, exhaustion. Others were concerned about not being able to access their medication."

Last year's debacle, which made headlines around the world, had barely begun before rescuers realized there would be a huge problem. The daredevil tubers usually jump in the river in Port Huron, Mich., and coast down the river for about 12 kilometres, landing in Marysville, Mich.

Kathleen Getty, a search-and-rescue training officer with the Canadian Coast Guard, gets a rescue boat ready for the upcoming Port Huron Float Down. This year's event takes place Sunday. (Carol Launderville/Canadian Coast Guard)

But high winds picked up as soon as the first group floated into the water. Getty and her crew were under the Bluewater Bridge in Port Huron, observing, when they knew something was wrong.

"It was pretty early on, just past the bridge, when we realized the wind was going to take the majority of them onto the Canadian side," she said. "There isn't much we can do about that … Mother Nature has her way."

Emergency responders in Sarnia, Ont., also had a large role in last year's rescue. Officials even offered up transit buses to shuttle shivering Americans back across the Bluewater Bridge to begin the slow process of returning without any identification.

Emergency responders in Sarnia, Ont., played a large role in last year's rescue, when dozens of floaters were treated for hypothermia. (Canadian Coast Guard)

Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley says planning meetings about this year's Float Down have been happening since January. This year's event could be even more complicated, though, because of a Canadian version that is planning to launch from Point Edward, Ont., at the same time.

"The police will be confiscating liquor right at the spot where they go into the river because they just can't allow that to happen and let safety be thrown by the wayside," Bradley said. "Have fun if you're going to do this, and we're not going to stop you, and we can't stop you."

Authorities on both sides of the border have tried to have someone to take responsibility for the event, but even heading into its 40th year, the Float Down remains unlicensed. 

Because there is no official registration, rescuers often end up searching for people who have gone unaccounted for, simply because those people haven't checked in with relatives and are reported missing.

"We have no idea how many people go into the water and we have no idea who makes it out," Knox said.

A joint statement prepared by the Canadian and U.S. Coast Guards stressed that despite their preparations, the event is risky to both participants and marine traffic.

"This is an inherently dangerous activity, especially for minors." it said. "As first responders, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Canadian Coast Guard recommend that people do not take part in this event."

Armstong agrees there are dangers to spending an entire day on the water, but argued the event can be safe and fun if people plan ahead. Sunscreen and water are key, she says.

"I am 100 per cent grateful that [rescue crews] are there," she said. "I apologize for any inconvenience that it causes, but part of the beauty of the event is the unorganized chaos."

Officials have spoken out against the annual Float Down event on the St. Clair River, saying it puts participants in danger. (Port Huron Float Down/Facebook)

Sunday will mark Armstrong's third Float Down; it's become so much of a family tradition that her sister plans to have members of her wedding reception form a chain during the event, so they can all float down together.

They plan to come every year until the event is taken over by rules that would ruin the freedom of floating.

"This sounds so cliché and American, but … you have the freedom to be responsible yourself," she said. "There are some things [that] are just human excitement and spontaneity — and that's what's really beautiful about the float down."