A Shreveport lawyer out boating with friends last month on Lake Bistineau in Louisiana chose to ignore an approaching storm and stayed out on the water. He stood up in the back of the boat, raised his arms toward heaven and shouted "Here I am!" Moments later, a bolt of lightning struck him in the head and killed him.
It was a dramatic way to go, but that lawyer's freak accident -- and his defiance of traditional admonitions to stay out of boats in thunderstorms -- points up the dangers that can exist on bucolic summer waterways.
This is the season for swimming, surfing and sailing, for climbing on rocks along the river or scuba diving deep on the lake's floor. City folk heading for the water will devote long, lazy days to water sports that refresh winter-weary minds and bodies, activities that re-create childhood summer feelings of beach parties in the moonlight or Fourth of July picnics on the shore.
It is also the season for accidents. The oceans, rivers, pools and water parks that lure millions each summer can -- in the wrong circumstances or with the wrong supervision or equipment -- be as dangerous as they are attractive.
More than 6,000 Americans a year die in water-related accidents, the majority of them, not surprisingly, during June, July and August.
As Commodore Wilbert E. Longfellow, who founded the American Red Cross Water Safety Program in 1914, said: "Water is a good friend, but a deadly enemy."
The image of Huckleberry Finn rafting down the Mississippi conjures up an Americana that is part of the nation's collective nostalgia. Although the days
of barefoot summers with nothing to do have long since disappeared, one part of that independent pioneer spirit has remained. Today, as then, anyone -- even a wild kid like Huck -- can take a craft out onto the water and be the skipper.
With 60 million recreational boaters in the United States, boating in all forms is growing in popularity. At the same time, more than 1,000 people died last year in accidents involving sailboats, motorboats, rowboats, canoes or kayaks. Operators of those crafts need no licenses, training or experience to take their vehicles out in public, and sometimes ignorance or foolishness can lead them into troubled waters.
The goal of boating safety specialists is to reduce the fatality rate to 6 deaths per 100,000 boats by 1990, says John Dane of the National Safe Boating Council. In 1986, says Dane, boating deaths were 6.5 per 100,000, for a total of 1,066 -- 50 fewer than the year before.
Most accidents occur when boaters overestimate their abilities -- usually because of either drug or alcohol abuse or peer pressure to perform -- or they underestimate their fatigue. "Boating tires you very quickly," says Hunt Anderson, chief of boating safety education for the U.S. Coast Guard. "It's not like going for a Sunday drive in the country. You're dealing with the reflection of the sun, the wind, the motion of the boat, and all these are stressors."
Boaters are highly susceptible to the effects of weather, especially the sun, which can cause major burns and heat stroke, Anderson says. "The high intensity of radiation, especially as reflected off the water, means that at a minimum a boater should wear sunglasses and a good sunscreen," he says, "and, for balding males like me, a hat."
Alcohol and other recreational drugs are a major contributor to boating accidents -- even when only passengers are using them. The biggest hazard of drunkenness on the waterways is not a collision with another boat, but the incapacitation of someone who has fallen overboard. And half of those who fall overboard are passengers, not boat operators.
"If someone has been drinking, the first thing that happens when he hits cold water is that he becomes disoriented," says Anderson. "We've seen over and over again that persons who fall in the water when they've been drinking head straight for the bottom."
According to Carl Bishop of the National Safe Boating Congress, 20 percent of boating fatalities are traced definitely to alcohol. He also thinks alcohol can be implicated in many other fatal accidents as well and points out that 60 percent occur in boats where empty beer cans are plentiful.
At two Pittsburgh area lakes operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, according to Bishop, alcohol use has been banned for the past three years. "And there have been no boating fatalities there during that time," he says. Bishop says the Corps is considering a ban on alcohol use at all its 463 recreational water facilities.
Other drugs of abuse, such as cocaine and marijuana, also are used by skippers and passengers alike. "Boating tends to be a recreational sport," says Bob Ilse of the Coast Guard, "and people tie in other sources of recreation when they're out boating, sources like alcohol and drugs."
Failure to use life jackets is another major cause of boating-related deaths. "Eighty percent of boating fatalities occur in persons who were not wearing personal flotation devices," says Nina Morov, manager of public safety for the National Safety Council. While life jackets are required on board for every passenger on the boat, no law exists that the vests actually be worn.
What good is a life vest on board to someone who has fallen overboard? Not much. According to Anderson of the Coast Guard, tests have shown that even advanced swimmers cannot put on life vests properly once they are in the water. Yet, he adds, even an unworn life vest is better than nothing; just hanging on to it in the water does provide some buoyancy.
Not every personal flotation device has the Coast Guard seal of approval, Anderson points out.
For a new kind of inflatable life jacket, for instance, only two manufacturers meet Coast Guard requirements. This new device is called a hybrid because it is a combination of a standard and an inflatable life vest.
It starts out as thin as a windbreaker, which provides only minimal flotation, and the Coast Guard requires that it be worn at all times on board.
The jacket inflates when needed -- either automatically on contact with the water, or when the wearer pulls a rip cord that activates a carbon dioxide cartridge.
If a person who is not wearing the life vest falls over board and just holds onto a hybrid jacket that is not inflated, the vest will not provide enough buoyancy to keep the victim afloat.
What's more, hybrids are expensive, about $70 compared with $25 to $35 for a standard orange life vest. And they're not much thinner than some of the newest models of standard life vests.
Their biggest drawback, however, is that they may fail to inflate. "The shelf life of the CO2 cartridge is not long," says Bishop of the National Water Safety Congress. In tests on hybrids, he says, "there has been as high as a 50 percent failure rate when you pull the rip cord."
Bishop points out that the abuse heaped on life jackets -- sitting on them, tossing them around, squashing them into trunks or picnic baskets or tackle boxes -- can easily puncture the inflatable bladder, making the hybrid useless when it's finally needed.
The life vest issue in boating safety recalls similar debates over the use of seat belts and motorcycle helmets. But even the Coast Guard considers the need for life jackets less compelling than that for seat belts in motor vehicle safety. "When the boating fatalities get high enough, maybe then we can talk about requiring people to wear personal flotation devices," says Anderson. "Until then, we can rely on education and information."
In the Swim
Swimming is the most apple pie of American summer sports -- it's Esther Williams and Mark Spitz; it's the dream of having a pool in the back yard; it's the childhood memory of trading in the doggie paddle for a respectable crawl.
Yet nearly 5,700 Americans drown each year, according to the National Safety Council. In fact, drowning is the second leading cause of death between the ages of 5 and 14, second only to motor vehicle accidents.
"It only takes a minute for a child to drown, even in an inch of water," says Nina Morov of the National Safety Council. She says that just in the time it takes for a parent to leave the backyard wading pool for a quick errand indoors, something awful can happen. "We had a death in Chicago this year," Morov says, "of an infant who fell head-first into a bucket. Her mother had gone into the house to answer the phone."
With the growing popularity of "water babies" classes that teach swimming to the very young, many parents believe their children can be drown-proofed at an early age. They're wrong. "Children aren't waterproof," says Morov. "The most they can become is water-safe, and that doesn't happen until the child is 12 or 13." Until then, vigilant adult supervision is required.
The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages swimming classes for children under 3. Babies in pools swallow a great deal of water, says Dr. Paul Dyment, chairman of the academy's Committee on Sports Medicine, "which can dilute the sodium content in their bloodstreams." At low levels, says the academy, the sodium imbalance, called hyponatremia, can cause lethargy, disorientation and fussiness, which parents may mistakenly attribute to excitedness or fatigue. When enough water is swallowed, says Dyment, the sodium level can become so low that it leads to convulsions.
Dyment adds that pool water also can transmit diarrhea viruses if the baby swallows enough. And, he says, the classes themselves can give parents a false sense of security, making them less vigilant when their babies are in fact still at risk of accidents in the pool.
Swimming in freshwater lakes and streams also carries another risk, which is deadly but extremely rare: An amoeba-borne infection of the brain that can kill its victim within days. Scientists estimate that swimmers who dive or roughhouse near the bottom of the lake, when the water is warm enough for the amoeba to become active (over 86 degrees Fahrenheit), run a one-in-2.5 million chance of contracting primary ameobic meningoencephalitis, or PAM.
Virginia has the highest number of PAM cases in the nation, with 18 deaths attributed to it in the past 22 years; a total of 55 Americans and 138 persons worldwide have died of PAM since it was first identified.
When there's water, water everywhere, there's always a risk of drowning. But some water spots are more dangerous than others. The Potomac River near the Great Falls National Park, for instance, is treacherous for swimmers or even waders, since rapid currents strong enough to knock them off their feet can be raging beneath a surface that's as smooth as glass.
Scientists know that water that moves is the most hazardous water of all. Five or six persons drown every summer in the local stretch of the Potomac River, called the Palisades district. Most deaths occur because the river is so "flashy" -- that is, it swells rapidly after a heavy rain and can increase its current to dangerous levels within hours.
So far this year, four people have drowned in the Palisades district.
Another hazardous zone is the water park, a wet kind of amusement park in which wave pools and water slides add the thrill -- and danger -- of movement to the existing hazard of a crowded pool. There are some 100 wave pools nationwide, each with a continuous source of motion at one end to make waves appear at regular intervals. A few wave pools, like the one at Wildwater Rapids in Virginia Beach, were designed with reefs along the bottom to make the waves big enough for surfboarders.
"Wave pools are very much like surf," says Louise Priest, president of the Council for National Cooperation in Aquatics. "Some of them are even worse than surf. The configuration of the bottom of certain wave pools creates a constant undertow."
The waves in these pools, and the undertow they create, are probably no worse than ocean waves and undertow, says Jeff Ellis, a Houston water park safety consultant. But they are potentially more dangerous because "a beach makes people act prudently. They see the ocean's waves and hear the roar and it all implies impending danger, so they behave accordingly."
In a water park, Ellis says, "too often the guest sees clear sparkling water and folks in there having fun, and the perception is that nothing can happen."
The truth is that plenty can happen. Because of the combination of enormous volume and the risks of the moving water, lifeguards find they must rescue people in a single wave pool, during a single season, as often as 700 times. This compares to four such "swimming rescues" per summer in a typical community pool.
The world's largest wave pool, of course, is the ocean. For most vacationers, the ebb and flow of ocean tides is calming and restorative, but even the ocean has hidden dangers. Remember T.J. Garp's frantic warning to his young sons in "The World According to Garp" -- "Watch out for the undertow!"
Garp was only partly right. The undertow (or, as one son misheard it, the "Under Toad"), the waves, tides and currents of the ocean can indeed be dangerous, especially for small children who are easily thrown off balance. But Garp forgot that those currents are part of the beach's allure, part of what draws millions of Americans every summer to play at the water's edge.
Most drownings occur to people who had no intention of being in the water in the first place but fell in from a dock, a boat or a cliff. The Council for National Cooperation in Aquatics reports that swimming pools are relatively safe; only 10 percent of drownings occur in pools. Significantly, more than half of pool drownings occur in backyard pools, which will make up about 85 percent of all pools by the end of the decade.
To help avoid accidents in a pool or any other body of water, a few basic rules must be obeyed. These rules don't apply just to children, and they don't apply just to non-swimmers. Anyone, no matter how mature or how good a swimmer, could drown in certain circumstances. Never swim alone. If you're in a pool or lake, it's best to have a lifeguard on duty. Otherwise, be sure someone else is in the water with you and, if possible, have someone spotting you from the shore as well. Don't dive into unknown waters. Of the 7,800 spinal cord injuries a year, notes the National Spinal Cord Injury Foundation, about 14 percent are sports-related, and two out of every three sports injuries -- some 730 every year -- are from diving. The victims are almost always white, male, under 30 and taller than 5-foot-6, says Dr. Kathryn Scott, vice chairman of physical education at the University of California at Berkeley. Diving accidents most often occur in the summer (72 percent between June and August), during the day (74 percent between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.) and on a weekend (53 percent occur Friday through Sunday). The biggest reasons for the accidents are drug or alcohol abuse, peer pressure and unknown water depth. Become drownproof. Knowing how to swim isn't always enough. All swimmers should learn how to stay afloat for an indefinite period by the Red Cross-approved method of "bobbing." The technique is illustrated on page 12. Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Parents and children alike should know how to resuscitate a near-drowned victim, and parents should learn the special techniques for infants and children. Don't depend on the lifeguard. Many parents drop off their young children at the neighborhood pool and rely on the lifeguard to provide all the supervision. But lifeguards at most pools are just youngsters themselves. And the lifeguard shortage forecast for this summer -- both because the college-age population from whom lifeguards are recruited is in decline and because less demanding summer jobs, for higher pay, are readily available -- means the guards on the job might be poorly qualified or be forced to work longer shifts during which their attention may flag.
All these rules, of course, should not overshadow the crucial half of Commodore Longfellow's homily: "Water is a good friend." Swimming is a cooling, relaxing, invigorating way to spend a summer day, and it's the best all-around exercise known. It trims the waist and abdomen, helps relieve backache, strengthens the heart and lungs -- all at virtually no risk of injury to joints or muscles.
The important message is to use caution in swimming, as in most potentially risky ventures. And consider tossing out some of the old dictums that guided so many childhood summers. Remember every mother's favorite: Wait an hour after eating before going for a swim?
"It's ridiculous," says Louise Priest, of the Council for National Cooperation in Aquatics. "That's an old-fashioned idea that even the Red Cross doesn't teach anymore. Research has shown that swimming right after eating does not cause stomach cramps."
Some experts still advise a rest after eating before plunging back in the water.
"I lean toward the school of thought that advises waiting a reasonable amount of time after eating a full-course meal, so you won't be exercising muscles without a blood supply readily available," says Carl Bishop. "But most people out for a day of swimming won't be sitting down to the equivalent of Sunday dinner. After a sandwich or a hot dog or two, I'd say a few minutes' wait normally is enough."
And so it's back after lunch to the ocean or pool, or to take the boat out on the bay for an afternoon sail.
To many mental health specialists, summer is the time for taking healthy risks. It pays to be a little bit daring on a wet vacation. Skills picked up along the way are what stay long after the sunburn has faded and snapshots have been put away. What better time than summer to learn the water sport never learned in childhood: sailing, scuba diving, water skiing, or, yes, even swimming?
"You can't live your life avoiding all risks," says Dr. Alan Levenson, chairman of psychiatry at the University of Arizona Medical School. "For one thing, I don't think there is a way to do that; for another thing, part of the challenge and reward of living is in taking chances."
Sponsored by the D.C. Chapter of the American Red Cross and the D.C. Department of Recreation, volunteer instructors at the all-day event, like Mark Campbell, above, taught swimmers and non-swimmers alike skills of rescue, boating safety, cardiopulmonary resuscitation and use of safety equipment. Here, Campbell shows Anyta Dyson how to use a draw stroke to control a canoe from the bow position.
The free event was held at the Takoma Pool.