July 15, 2013
- This story and more in the July online edition of Knowledge Magazine - the Official Safety Magazine of the U.S. Army.
FORT RUCKER, Ala. - One beautiful morning, my family joined some friends for a boat ride on Lake Nacimiento on the central coast of California. The water was cold, so we had no plans to go swimming. We just wanted to spend some time on the beautiful lake.
My wife, father and I arrived at the lake about 8 a.m. and met two of our friends at the launch ramp. We put the boat in the water and loaded up with no issues. I noticed there wasn't a single personal flotation device in sight, but didn't mention it. Little did I know that my silence would almost lead to tragedy.
As we got out on the water, there were only two other boats on the lake. We cruised around at a nice, leisurely pace, enjoying the scenery and fresh air. As we entered an area the locals call the "narrows," one of our friends handed out beers. Everyone accepted, including my father, who was 68 years old at the time.
After a couple of beers, nature called, so we decided to make a pit stop. The only way off the boat was to walk along the rail to the bow (front). I was the first one off, and one of my friends followed. As we relieved ourselves, my father decided he needed to get off the boat too. My wife and our other friend were in the cabin preparing snacks and didn't realize my father was attempting to get off the boat.
As my father got onto the rail, he lost his balance and fell into the water. My wife heard the splash and came running out of the cabin. Initially, she didn't see anything, but as she looked around the boat, she saw my father underwater, looking up at her! She jumped in and brought him to the surface. My friend and I rushed back and helped them out of the water. They were both blue from the frigid water, so we warmed them up with blankets and put a sweatshirt on my father. We decided we'd better cut the trip short and head home for some dry clothes and hot coffee.
The ride back to the launch ramp was quiet as everyone reflected on what had just happened. My wife broke the silence by asking my father why he didn't swim to shore. His answer surprised us all. He said, "I didn't swim to shore because I don't know how to swim." The boat went silent again. I never knew my father couldn't swim.
My father had lived with us for the past 10 years because of health issues. He was very thin, but his lung cancer was in remission. He was happy and feeling good at this time in his life. I often reflect on how I almost lost him and my wife that fateful day.
My father finally succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 79. I hate to think what those final 11 years would have been like without him or my wife in my life. What might have happened if my father had panicked? If we hadn't been drinking, this close call probably would've never happened.
Please don't find yourself in a similar situation. It was bad enough we'd been drinking, but not wearing a PFD was inexcusable. For the safety of everyone on the boat, leave the alcohol on the shore and ensure PFDs of the proper classification are available for each passenger. Know who can and can't swim, and don't allow anyone on the boat who's not willing to abide by the rules. By being water wise, you can help prevent a fun day on the lake from ending in disaster.
FYI - According to the U.S. Coast Guard, in 2011, 533 of the 758 boating fatalities resulted from drowning, with 84 percent of the victims reported as not wearing a life jacket. The USCG urges recreational boaters to make sure everyone on board wears a life jacket at all times on the water. To learn more about boating safety, visit http://www.uscgboating.org/.