A weekend clam-digging adventure came to a sorrowful end for two families last weekend when women drowned in Pacific County. Questions are being raised about how two deaths occurred miles apart within minutes of one another under startlingly similar circumstances.
It should first be said that residents of western Washington and Oregon are, for the most part, fairly familiar with the rewards and risks of ocean beaches. In particular, some razor clam diggers have characteristics in common with ardent football fans, who attend games and tailgate parties in sometimes-appalling conditions. Most clammers would be irritated if a “nanny state” were to be overly zealous in curtailing the hours and conditions in which digging is allowed.
These aren’t the first fatal incidents involving clam diggers. For example, in late January 2004, a couple drowned while clamming together at Leadbetter Point, where one of this weekend’s deaths also happened. In addition, there are countless accounts of clammers of all ages and physical conditions being tumbled in the surf. If anything, locally there is considerable wonder that more fatalities don’t occur. Children and adults who aren’t entirely sure of foot are perhaps the most vulnerable, but even strong and confident adults have close calls.
At all times of the year, out-of-town visitors are far more likely to have trouble than locals. However, summertime drownings tend to impact overly confident young people, whereas fall and winter clamming places a wide range of age groups in and near the ocean. The desire to access clam beds at low tide, in areas usually covered by surf, tempts diggers to go westward where they will certainly be partially submerged by incoming waves. Enthusiastic diggers willingly accept getting wet to their knees or even thighs.
But this means they violate advice from local safety and rescue experts, who say that it is never safe to swim — or even wade — at local beaches. Due to cold water temperatures, the lack of lifeguards, floating logs and other debris, and a very strong rip current, the water here is dangerous, even when it appears to be calm. Additionally, large “sneaker waves” can occur at any time.
It may have been a sneaker wave that was responsible for last Friday’s nearly simultaneous drownings on either side of the mouth of Willapa Bay. More detailed analysis in coming days may pinpoint other risk factors.
For now, clam diggers, surfperch fishermen and anyone else who comes into contact with the surf zone should obey these common-sense precautions:
• Always keep a close watch on the ocean for sneaker waves, the incoming tide and floating debris.
• It’s best to avoid going more than knee-deep in the water in this area, which is notorious for drownings. If recreational activities necessitate contact with the ocean, strongly consider wearing a life preserver. Clammers must always be aware that hip and chest waders contribute to mishaps if they are over-topped by seawater.
• Parents who do allow children to wade should have a sober adult stay within arms’ reach of them at all times.
• Anyone who spots a swimmer in distress should call 911 immediately, rather than attempting to rescue them. Stay on shore and try to provide emergency responders with as much information as possible about the victim’s location, activity and appearance.
• Diggers should bear in mind the ratio of risk to reward in going into the surf zone. Nighttime digs can be especially problematic. No clam is worth risking or losing your life.
This weekend’s drownings were deeply upsetting to all involved. Beyond the families and friends of the victims, emergency responders feel anguish and strain while trying to save lives or recover bodies. These were grueling hours for all. They deserve community thanks for their efforts.