Newfoundland and Labrador’s lengthy historical connection to the sea has always had a tragic element, and that connection has been amplified in recent weeks following numerous water-related deaths.
According to the Canadian Red Cross, there have been 13 water-related deaths in the province since the beginning of this year, with five coming in the last three weeks to coincide with the annual recreational food fishery. As of Aug. 7, 2011, eight deaths were recorded for that year.
The latest tragic event happened Tuesday when a boat overturned in the Codroy Valley area. Three people were fishing that morning in a small, open, fibreglass boat. According to the Port aux Basque RCMP, a local fisherman went to look for them.
He found the overturned boat, but only two of the missing people were with it. The body of a 65-year-old man was later found. The incident was first reported to police as a possible drowning.
Police later confirmed to The Telegram that the deceased man was not wearing a life-jacket.
Wayne Young, a Canadian Red Cross employee based in St. John’s, said having a personal floatation device (PFD) greatly increases the likelihood of surviving trouble in the water.
“There’s a real myth out there right now that when you hit our waters, they’re going to be warm, which is furthest from the truth, especially in light of all the amazing weather we’ve had,” said Young, director of first-aid, swimming and water safety services for the Atlantic region.
“Once you hit the frigid Atlantic waters, you’re still only talking about 10-12 C surface temperature, if that. So the onset of hypothermia will happen within little more than an hour, depending on body size and body weight.”
Jeanette Jobson, executive director of the provincial branch of the Royal Lifesaving Society Canada, said the shock one experiences after hitting the water is immense and unavoidable. Even if you’re a good swimmer, she said, you cannot expect to rely on that skill alone.
“Being a swimmer is going to help. It’s not automatically going to save your life if you’re in cold water, because it will cramp up your muscles.”
According to Jobson, approximately 50 per cent of drownings are boating related, with boats often capsizing or filling up with water due to excessive weight.
During the recreational food fishery, Jobson suspects there are many people on the water who are not very experienced in boating.
“They may not be really experienced in the safety aspects and just want to get out there on the water,” she said. “That’s understandable, but there’s a complacency that takes place, and people say, ‘I don’t need a life-jacket,’ or, ‘We’ll just add one more person to the boat.’ And then everything starts to go wrong from there. With some simple precautions, you can make sure that trip becomes a round trip.”
For a decade, the Canadian Red Cross has offered PFDs out of its five offices across the province for people to borrow. Young said more than 200 PFDs from its St. John’s office are now in use, largely due to the food fishery.
In 2010 and 2011, a total of 35 water-related deaths were reported by the Lifesaving Society, with 12 of those in the latter year.
“In our frigid waters without that PFD on — hey, we’ve got too many examples in this province,” said Young. “Far, far too many.”
In 2009, 38 deaths were reported — 17 were linked to the Cougar Helicopters crash in March of that year.
Leaving a detailed plan with someone onshore about where you intend to go and how long you expect to be gone is a good move, Young said, so long as that person knows if the boaters do not return on time, a call for help should be made.
“It’s their role now to activate the EMS (emergency medical services) system and get somebody out looking for you.”
Researching weather conditions, maintaining your boat and ensuring an adequate fuel supply is available for the journey are essentials when planning a boat trip.
Young said boaters must also make sure they have safety equipment on board, including 50 feet of rope, paddles, an anchor and a sound-signalling device.
Among the trends witnessed by Young is the advanced age of those dying in water-related incidents. Whereas once those found dead were often in their 20s, Young said, 50 to 70 years is a common age range for water-related deaths.
“They have the disposable income, they have the ability to get the vessels — let’s make that next purchase be that PFD that you’re going to wear.”
Alcohol remains a concern. Young notes people out on the water need to be as alert as possible in the event of trouble, adding the onset of hypothermia is advanced by alcohol consumption.
Parents also need to be mindful of where children are when using a boat. Young said drownings are not always loud and noticeable.
“Drowning is silent. In most cases, kids who are unable to swim slip below the surface of water without even struggling. If you’re not watching, you won’t know it happened until it’s too late.”
Being mindful of water safety ultimately helps secure an enjoyable experience, Young said.
“This is a great opportunity to have fun. Understand the risk, prepare for the risk and then enjoy yourself.”