Tough lesson

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A Codroy Valley couple’s harrowing story about the drowning death of their friend — and their own near demise — is a stark reminder about the importance of wearing life-jackets on boating trips.

Mary Williams and William Beggs were horrified when a recreational cod-fishing trip last week went terribly awry. The boat, helmed by their friend, 65-year-old retired fisherman Johnny MacDonald, began taking on water and was swiftly swamped, tossing all three into the cold Atlantic.

Neither Beggs nor MacDonald could swim, and MacDonald drowned after urging his companions to climb onto the overturned boat in order to save themselves — though they had tried valiantly to save him.

There had only been two life-jackets aboard;  Williams gave one to Beggs but the other was too small for anyone else to wear.

A combination of events worked against the boat’s passengers — the too few life-jackets, choppy waters, a leak in the stern, seasickness and frigid water.

After MacDonald drowned, the couple waited more than four hours before they were picked up by a passing vessel. By then, Williams was so devoid of strength that she had to be lifted aboard their rescue ship, the Western Passage.

They told The Gulf News their story this week because they wanted people to know that MacDonald did not die alone and that they had done their best to help him. In doing so, they have become what no one ever wants or asks to be — an example of what can happen if the proper precautions are not taken on the water.

There have been more than a dozen water-related deaths in this province so far this year, an increase over last year at this point.

For non-swimmers, the risk of danger is obviously increased, particularly if they aren’t wearing personal flotation devices. But even strong swimmers may be no match for the strength-sapping cold waters off our coasts, which are cool even at the height of summer.

As Jeanette Jobson, executive director of the provincial branch of the Royal Lifesaving Society Canada, told The Telegram recently, “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.”

Jobson also pointed out that the recreational food fishery often attracts participants who are not skilled boaters.

“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.”

MacDonald’s family and friends are left to cope with a huge loss, and Beggs and Williams will undoubtedly be forever changed by their ordeal. But by telling their story — as painful as it is — they could help to change other people’s attitudes, by making them think of safety first before heading out onto the water.

Organizations: The Gulf News, Royal Lifesaving Society Canada, The Telegram

Geographic location: Codroy Valley

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