Keep your attention on water-safety rules this summer

Marion Reservoir provides a “Loaner Life Jacket Station” at its swimming area at Cottonwood Cove. A PFD (personal flotation device) is the primary piece of safety equipment when in, on, or around the water—especially at a lake or pond because you cannot see the bottom. Don Ratzlaff / Free Press
Marion Reservoir provides a “Loaner Life Jacket Station” at its swimming area at Cottonwood Cove. A PFD (personal flotation device) is the primary piece of safety equipment when in, on, or around the water—especially at a lake or pond because you cannot see the bottom. Don Ratzlaff / Free Press

It always saddens me to learn of any drowning. The tragic occurrence of the first summertime drowning in Kansas happened Memorial weekend when 28-year-old Jonathan Rivera, a Fort Riley soldier, drown at Milford Lake.

The news reported this young man attempted to swim across a cove, was unable to make it across, went under the water, and was not seen again until his body was recovered.

Drownings are preventable and happen because one or more water safety rules are not observed. These are several observations I’ve made about this tragic event:

◼ Rivera was not wearing a life jacket or PFD (personal flotation device). A PFD is the primary piece of safety equipment when in, on or around the water—especially at a lake or pond because you cannot see the bottom.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 80 percent of boating accident victims drown. Of those, 83 percent were not wearing a life jacket. A life jacket is designed to keep a person afloat. It assists non-swimmers, poor swimmers, as well as strong swimmers.

◼ Be especially prudent when in, on or around cold water. Your body loses heat 25 times fast in cold water than in cold air. This can quickly lead to hypothermia and death.

To conserve body heat in cold water, the least amount of body movement is recommended. More movement increases body heat loss. Adopting the H.E.L.P. (heat escape lessening posture) position will greatly increase your chances of survival in cold water.

Do life jackets prevent drownings? Yes, they do if you have it on.

◼ Overestimating swimming abilities, conditions and distance are other contributing factors. Like any athletic endeavor, practice is needed to remain strong and proficient at the sport.

Swimming abilities at the beginning of the summer will not be as strong as at the end of the previous summer. People do the majority of their swimming during the summer months.

◼ Open-water swimming is very different than swimming in a pool. Many factors are controlled at a pool. The water is clear, you can see the bottom, you know the depth. If you get tired you can quickly get to the side, and if you get into trouble, there is a lifeguard on duty.

At a lake, you cannot see the bottom, so many factors are unknown—such as the depth of the water, the contours of the bottom. The water could be shallow, then suddenly drop off.

◼ Weather presents challenges and can be unpredictable. Wind makes the water even more turbid and cause waves.

It is very difficult to swim into the wind. Add to that, the punishment of the waves hitting you in the face with each arm stroke. Fatigue quickly sets in.

◼ Once you get a certain distance from shore, the water will be deep. If you get tired, stopping is not an option, you either turn around or keep going. A life jacket allows you to stop and rest, then keep going.

◼ Hypothermia was probably a factor. The surface water temperature at Milford Lake was 75 degrees (Fahrenheit). That is 23 degrees lower than our normal body temperature.

Even a mild case of hypothermia can impair physical and mental abilities. Add to that wind speed, length of exposure, and no life jacket. A life jacket will help conserve body heat by trapping heat or insulating.

As summer continues, please keep your attention on water safety rules so we can prevent drownings before they happen. The water is a fun place to be but can be very dangerous if we don’t know how to be safe in it.

Becki Yoder is an American Red Cross water safety instructor.

by Becki Yoder

Special to The Free Press