Boating without Life Vests Ends in Tragedy

By Siva Soora, Little Rock, Arkansas


It was a warm, bright, muggy, summer day in Little Rock, Arkansas. A few Indian families were making their July-4th plans—especially those with parents visiting from India. The “India like” weather was enticing.  But little did one group of friends discussing a trip to the nearby lake know of the terrible tragedy that awaited them.

For most urban Indians the only exposure to a large body of water is getting into knee-deep waters at the beach. So, when an Indian says he/she knows how to swim, it is typically swimming in pools. And very few Indians travel on boats, let alone how to pilot one.

Also, Safety First is an idea drilled into people in American manufacturing work places. However, many Indians working in offices do not have this same kind of training.

Two families—one a husband and wife and their friend; the other, a couple with elderly parents and their four-year old—decided to go on a boating trip on last July-4th. They chose one of the many large remote lakes in Arkansas. These young immigrants had lived in the US for barely  five years. The husband driving the boat and his friend had learned swimming while growing up in India.

It was windy when they rented a large pontoon boat that beautiful summer day. They were all issued life vests as required by law. The clerk who handed over the vests told them, “Adults don’t need to wear it but children under 12 must wear it.” This casual statement was the Achilles heel for this day of boating.

The parents, not knowing how to swim and fearful of the water quickly put on the life jackets and the four-year-old was also suited with the life preserve. None of the others wore a life jacket.

The husband navigating the boat was the only one with any experience in piloting the boat. In the strong soothing winds on that 90-degree day they started out. The sole trained driver was trying to train others on how to run the boat. Along the edge of the lake’s shallow waters, others had parked their small boats and were swimming or fishing.

The Indians in the pontoon boat did not pay attention to the ski boats speeding past them at 30 knots and the strong waves created by them. In about an hour, they were in the middle of the lake, and their initial fear and excitement was wearing off.  They parked the boat in the middle of the lake where the water was 90-feet deep. They could not anchor their boat in such deep waters.

Taking off his shirt, the man who knew how to swim jumped into the water and swam for a while. He returned to the boat  thinking that it was safe to swim in the lake. With the engine shut off, the boat was drifting in the strong wind.

Then his friend decided to jump into the lake with his encouragement. Swimming back home in a pool was their only experience. Little did they know what to expect in a large body of water with rolling waves created by the speeding boats whizzing by. The friend panicked and started taking in water. Noticing him panic, the boat driver jumped in the water without his life jacket to help. Any trained person in water rescue knows you should not be in front of the person you are trying to rescue. But the driver went in front of his friend who, in his panic grabbed him and pulled him under the water. The mistake of either of them not wearing a life jacket was fatal for both. They were drowning.  All the others on the boat were bystanders in shock not knowing what to do.

The boat driver’s wife screamed and threw life preservers to them. But in the 40-knot wind, they drifted away from the two struggling for their lives. The boat itself was drifting in the wind away from them. Those on the boat panicked and started the engines of the boat full throttle.  The engine overheated and was shut off automatically.

Untrained for this kind of an emergency, they called 911 from their cell phone, but could not get a signal as all cell-phone towers were quite far away in the wilderness of the lake. After several vital minutes, they reached 911, but help arrived quite late. The two people in the water drowned. Totally grief-stricken those on the boat returned to the shore.

So, what if anything could have been done differently to avoid such a tragic turn of events?  A marina operator told a journalist from a local TV station, “Eight out of nine drowning incidents are because people do not wear life vests.”  In hindsight, it is so obvious that everyone should have worn life jacket whether they knew swimming or not. Boating safely requires a few simple rules, such as swimming only in shallow waters closer to the shore. The boat should have been anchored, and at least one other person should have known how to operate the boat. When it is very windy, it is critical not to jump into deep waters since the waves created by ski boats are bigger.

Thus, an otherwise enjoyable boating trip in an Arkansas lake ended in a tragedy this summer afternoon, changing the lives for many forever simply because of not taking a few simple safety precautions.  ♦

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