Tragedy Comes Too Close

By Scott Richmond

My wife Barbara hung up the phone and walked into my office. "Bad news," she said. I already knew that from the cast of her eyes. "Jerry drowned in the river last night."

I sat down heavily and listened sadly as she told me what had happened. Jerry and a companion were trolling for summer steelhead at the mouth of a Columbia tributary. His companion stood up for a moment, lost balance, and fell out of the boat. Jerry immediately tossed out a life jacket, because he knew his fishing partner couldn't swim. The life jacket missed, so Jerry jumped into the water to attempt a rescue. After hitting the water, Jerry went under and didn't come back up. Another boat sped over and rescued his companion. No one saw Jerry alive again. "It seems like a nightmare," Jerry's widow told my wife a week later, "but I know I can't wake up and bring it to an end."

Jerry and his wife rented a house from us. I didn't know him especially well, but I knew he was a decent person who loved to work in the yard and play with his grandchildren. He looked forward to retirement in a few years. He liked to fish, and the river was close enough so he could go down after work and troll for steelhead. Death and tragedy were far from his mind on that unlucky evening last August, as I'm sure they would have been for any us.

It made me think how many times I've taken needless chances, or done something foolish, or was not properly prepared for an emergency. Too many, I know. I've just been lucky enough to get away with it. So far.

The incident was a wake-up for me, a reminder to take seriously the hazards of being on the water. It's distressingly easy for an unpleasant incident to turn into a tragedy. Here are some thoughts on how to prevent that from happening.

  1. Have a Coast Guard approved personal floatation device (PFD; a life jacket) for everyone on board. Keep the PFDs where they can be reached quickly in an emergency.
  2. Any child under 12 wears a PFD at all times. Period. (In Oregon, that's the law, not just a good idea).
  3. Any non-swimmers in the boat? Ask before you set out. Non-swimmers wear a PFD, no execeptions. There are some excellent PFDs that look like vests, not life jackets. Keep some around for those who won't wear a PFD because it looks "wimpy."
  4. If a dangerous situation comes up--sudden storm, blanketing fog, strong tidal action, motor conks out while you're in a strong current or near surf, etc.--have everyone put on a their PFD. No exceptions.
  5. If someone falls overboard, DON'T PANIC! Panic can be resisted, but it takes an effort. Don't just react. Pause just for a second to consider the best action. All Jerry had to do was turn the boat around to pick up his companion, but panic seized control and prevented clear thought; he kept trolling away, then jumped in. A two-second pause for thought might have saved his widow a lot of grief.
  6. If a passenger ends up in the water, swing the back end of the boat away so the propeller won't cause an injury.
  7. Immediately throw some kind of floatation device for the person in the water.
  8. Maneuver the boat so it is downwind or downstream from the person in the water. Otherwise you might drift right on top of them. Then approach carefully and be mindful of the propeller.
  9. When helping someone back into a small boat, have him or her come over the stern or the bow so the boat won't be capsized. Make sure the motor is turned off so the propeller won't cause an injury.
  10. If you really have to go in the water, put on a PFD first, then take something that floats and push it to the other person when you get close. Keep it between you and the other person and let go of it if you need to. Never underestimate the danger presented by a drowning person in a state of panic. The old adage about smacking a panicking swimmer into unconsciousness is untrue. You will never have the strength to subdue a drowning, panicked person. That's why going into the water is a last resort. The rule is "Throw; if that doesn't work, then Row; as a last resort, Go."
  11. If you retrieve someone from the water, you may need to administer CPR. Do you know what to do? Also, there seems to be some evidence that a well-administered Heimlich Maneuver can clear blocked breathing passages and is a good first step before doing CPR.
  12. Once you have someone in a safe place and breathing, keep him or her warm. Don't give them alcohol; it gives a temporary warm feeling, but actually acts as a depressant and makes them colder.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).