Coast guard officials are sounding a warning on an ill-fated annual river floating event that led to the rescue on Sunday of up to 1,500 Americans inadvertently blown onto Canadian shores.
Participants in the Port Huron Float Down started at a beach in Port Huron, Mich., for the annual tradition of floating on inflatable rafts and boats along 10 kilometres of the St. Clair River, which divides Michigan and Ontario. But winds that exceeded 40 kilometres an hour on Sunday afternoon blew the rafters to the shoreline of Sarnia, Ont., and prompted a massive multi-agency response.
Rescuers towed some rafters back into U.S. waters, but police estimated that up to 1,500 people had to be transported on buses to the U.S. border over a four-hour period. Many were drunk, and most did not have identification, said Constable John Sottosanti, a spokesman for the Sarnia Police.
"Once they hit our land, we were obliged to take them," Mr. Sottosanti said, adding that the strain on emergency responders was overwhelming. "This is something we're not supposed to be dealing with at all."
The rescue also drew the Canadian Coast Guard, Ontario Provincial Police, Canada Customs and Border Agency, RCMP and Canadian Red Cross. "In terms of rescues, it's off the charts," said Peter Garapick, the coast guard's superintendent of search and rescue in the central and Arctic regions.
It is the latest mishap for the event, which dates back to 1977 and has run informally without an organizer since 2011. In 2014, a 19-year-old man drowned. Last year, the Canadian Shipowners Association urged the public not to participate over concerns about safety and the impact on vessel traffic.
The coast guard said in a statement on Monday that the event poses "significant and unusual hazards given the fast-moving current, large number of participants, lack of life jackets, and as was the case this year, very challenging weather conditions."
But the Float Down has persisted, unsanctioned by Canadian and U.S. coast guards. "You could call it a flash mob," Mr. Garapick said. "If the [coast guards] were going to put in regulations to stop, what does a flash mob do? It finds another way to get in the water."
The event's Facebook page already features a photo with next year's Float Down date. A post on Sunday thanked Canadian authorities for their help: "You've shown us true kindness and what it means to be amazing neighbours."
Lindsey Scaglione, 25, was among the rafters blown to shore, despite repeated attempts by her group to paddle and swim against the current. "There was no fighting it," she said. A younger participant in her group of 30 people was dragged under a raft and almost drowned, then went into cold-water shock, Ms. Scaglione said.
A jet skier tried to tow Ms. Scaglione's group back to U.S. waters, but was stopped after more than 100 people tried to latch on, she said. Another jet ski pulled her group within swimming distance of the U.S. shore and they made it to safety.
Ms. Scaglione said she would join the Float Down again."As long you take the safety precaution of having a flotation device, I think it's still a fun event."
Photos of the aftermath show inflatable rafts, garbage and bottles littering the shore walk. Sarnia parks and recreation staff spent Monday morning cleaning up, spokeswoman Katarina Ovens said. "They found a picnic table as well," she said. "I'm not sure how that happened. I imagine maybe it was on top of a raft."