Swimming after objects can be deadly

By Wayne Bryan Published July 3, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Using Lake Ouachita as a backdrop, Brian Westfall, natural resources specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, holds a beach ball as an example of an item not to swim after if it floats away.

When people are enjoying one of the region’s lakes, things can get away from them. Beach balls, caps, unused life jackets or any kind of float can be blown or dropped into the water. Even vessels can slip away from shore and get carried away by wind or current.

Brian Westfall, nature specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Lake Ouachita, asks holiday visitors to the region’s lakes to restrain from jumping in and going after an object.

“The natural impulse is to go in and get it,” Westfall said. “I’ve seen a 99-cent beach ball float away and watched people act like it’s worth $40,000 and swim out after it. Let it go. No possession in the world is more important than your life.”

Swimmers frequently overestimate the distances on water and often think they can swim a few strokes out and retrieve the object. Westfall said a boater tried to retrieve his boat that had drifted away on Lake Hamilton.

“The farther he went into the lake, the farther the boat was being blown from him,” Westfall said. “After minutes of swimming, he looked back and noticed he was farther away from the shore than he was from the drifting boat. Finally, a Lake Hamilton resident happened to see the swimmer, rescued him and pulled the man into his boat.

“You have to always think before placing yourself in harm’s way. It either doesn’t matter or it will be returned to you.”

Westfall said the July Fourth weekend may be the first this year to offer true summer weather for enjoying the water. However, he said, everyone, especially boaters, must be ready, and that means doing some planning and maintenance, as well as remembering the rules.

“First, it’s time to look over the boat that has probably been up on the trailer all year,” said Westfall, who is also president of the National Water Safety Congress for 2014-2015. “The boat has had no maintenance, the battery may not be in top form, and the drain plugs are probably not in the boat.”

When hitting the water, Westfall also suggests some items to take along on any boat trip:

• An easy-to-read compass;

• A fully charged cellphone;

• Dry clothes in a sealed waterproof bag;

• Sunscreen; and

• Polarized sunglasses.

Westfall said the sunglasses are especially important when being out on the water all day.

“If you have spent a day on the water without the polarized lenses, you can get blue-green vision,” he said. “If someone’s swimming or floating nearby, there is no way you’re going to be able to see them on top of the water.”

Before going on a boat trip, Westfall also suggests a float plan. Much like a flight plan, it is a record of where you are going and an estimate of when you will be back.

“Before leaving, give your float plan to a loved one,” Westfall said. “It should include the names of the people on the boat, where you are beginning the trip and a detailed idea of where you are going to go and when you expect to get back.

“If they don’t hear from you in time, they can call the Corps, and we can define the search area and get to them as quickly as possible.”

Before leaving the boat ramp or dock, the boat owner should ask a member of the boating party to be the navigator or spotter.

“Not having someone who is looking out for logs and other debris is a major cause of boat accidents,” Westfall said. “Lake Ouachita has 40,000 acres of water and more than 200 islands. Someone needs to keep up with where you are going.”

Because of colder-than-normal spring weather and recent heavy rains, Westfall said, the water in the Corps lakes, such as Lake Ouachita and DeGray Lake, will be cold during the holiday weekend.

“The water will be chilly, even in the 60s, this weekend,” he said. “Some other lakes that are not as deep may have water in the 70s when it’s normally in the 80s this time of year.”

Those unexpected temperatures will have what Westfall calls the chill that kills.

“If you jump into the water, it will be a shock,” he said. “The natural reflex is to gasp, and that’s bad under water. This weekend, wear your life preserver when going into the water.”

If someone is in trouble in the water, it is again best not to go into the water to help the person.

“Remember, reach, throw, row and never go,” Westfall said. “One can save a drowning person while staying out of harm’s way.”

Most drownings happen in less than 10 feet of water and less than 10 feet from safety, according to information from the National Water Safety Congress. In many cases, a person can be reached with a stick, a boat paddle, a fishing rod or a rope. Another recommendation is to throw a life jacket to the person in trouble and pull him or her in.

“Never go into deep water to save a person in trouble unless you are trained to do so,” he said. “A panicked swimmer is strong and will pull you under.”

The third possibility in rescuing someone from the water is to move a vessel close to the person, but it is a complicated maneuver, and Westfall said there may not be time.

“Many times, someone jumps in and gasps that water and keeps going down,” he said. “After that, it’s a recovery mission.”

The lakes of the Tri-Lakes area will be great places for summer fun for the holidays, but some precautions, planning and life jackets are required.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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