Learn to swim program 2019

WATER BABIES — Sebastopol Rotary’s Learn to Swim lessons started in April and are just now winding down. Taught by volunteers, this program is in its 35th year and has taught 12,000 local kids how to swim. Learn to Swim also teaches water safety in addition to the mechanics of swimming.

The co-chairperson of Rotary’s Learn to Swim Program muses on recent close-calls and the importance of water safety

Five people nearly drowned in the Russian River on Tuesday, April 23. The Sonoma County sheriff’s helicopter had to rescue a family — two parents and their two children — who got in trouble in the river, as well as a nun in full religious dress, who went in to rescue them. The parents were stranded on a submerged island in the river, while their children, who were in inner tubes, held on for dear life to branches protruding from the water nearby. As Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman noted at the rescue scene, none of the family members had life jackets. The nun who tried to rescue the family barely held on in the current before being rescued.

This story had a happy ending. All five of the people who rescued, however, could have added to the U.S. drowning statistics — 10 people in this country drown every day, and four are children. Drowning is the No. 1 cause of unintentional death for children under the age of 4; the second leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 14, and the third leading cause of death for ages 5 to 19. Nearly all drownings are preventable.

What we can learn from this near-tragedy

On the same day the water rescue happened in the Russian River, the Sebastopol Rotary Club began its 35th annual Learn to Swim Program, offering free swim lessons to all second graders in the Sebastopol area. This river incident is truly a teachable moment.

The Russian River is still running high, fast and cold. The adults in the rescued family were floating on the river in an unsafe watercraft, while their children, ages 8 and 10, were in their own in inner tubes. None had life jackets. The nun who tried to rescue the family was herself almost overcome by the river conditions.  She told Baxman she thought she “could swim better than that.” Even an expert swimmer would have been in trouble. In fact, during the rescue, a deputy sheriff tried to help all five by going in with a rope, but the current was too strong and he had to turn back.

Those parents and their would-be rescuer broke every rule about being safe on the Russian River. They first ignored the river’s dangerous condition, then used unsafe watercraft and finally were not even wearing wear life jackets. The parents were floating in the currents, separated from their children, who also did not have life jackets. The well-intentioned nun tried to make a rescue alone, under dangerous conditions, without calling 911 immediately.

Water safety goes beyond swimming lessons

The Rotary Learn to Swim program, in addition to teaching swimming skills to 375 children from local schools, reviewed all of these water safety rules within a week of the near drowning. State Park Lifeguard Supervisor Tim Murphy spoke to all of the kids, as he does every year, to deliver water safety lessons. And he demonstrated all of the equipment he needs to make ocean rescues — gear that almost no average swimmer is going to have.

Murphy also reviewed ocean safety rules with the kids. What is the rule that everyone who lives near the coast of California should know? You got it: “Don’t turn your back on the ocean.” 

Tragically, many visitors to our beaches either do not know this rule or choose not to observe it. Our second graders learned that you stay on the dry part of the beach, that waves can cause undertows and riptides and that you should always have a parent or caretaker with you.

They also learned that for both the river and ocean, one cannot always see the bottom and what hazards under the surface of the water.  Murphy emphasized that you must always enter any water, whether pool, river, lake or ocean feet first. He wants the kids themselves to read the signs warning of dangerous conditions at our beaches and at the river and make sure their parents read them too. Murphy also demon­strated a rescue on the pool deck with student volunteers and all the gear he needs to be safe in the ocean.

Teaching water safety saves lives

Experts say that for every 100 swimming lessons a life is saved. After 35 years and 12,000 kids, the Rotary Learn to Swim program has made our community safer.

Rotary is not the only swimming program in Sebastopol, however. We are fortunate to have Ives Pool, where pool manager Ricardo Freitas, in addition to giving Rotary use of the pool for its program, offers swim lessons pretty much all year. He also hosts Vamos a Nadar, a swim program for Spanish language users. The Sebastopol Sea Serpents and the two local high schools offer the opportunity for sharpening swim skills with competitive swim programs.

Making the river safer

In addition to Sebastopol programs, Sonoma County Regional Parks has a lifeguard at Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach on the Russian River and has a River Patrol Water Safety Program, which patrols Russian River Beaches with no lifeguards.

The River Patrol Water Safety Program will be in its seventh year this summer.   It is staffed by a Ranger and two county lifeguards.

 The goal of the program, which was created in response to five drownings, which occurred in 2012, is to engage the public in conversations about water safety and drowning prevention at the following beaches:

• Steelhead Beach

• Forestville River Access (Mom’s Beach)

• Sunset Beach.

The River Patrol’s focus each summer is to communicate with the public and provide education on water safety. The program operates four days a week (Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday).

The River Patrol Water Safety Unit also installs life jacket racks at Del Rio Woods, Steelhead Beach, Forestville River Access (Mom’s Beach) and Sunset Beach. When they’re on site, patrol members also hand out life jackets to people and help  put them on to make sure they fit correctly (so children don’t slide out). The life jacket racks allow the public access to life jackets seven days a week. The life jackets are donated.

All these players and programs help keep our community water safe for adults and kids

Rotary’s Learn to Swim series is ending this week, but Ives Pool is signing up kids for swimming lessons right now. They have private lessons, summer group lessons and adult lessons.

For swim lessons at Ives Pool, contact Pool Manager Ricardo Freitas, ivespool@sbcglobal.net; 707-823-8693. Ives Pool is at 7400 Willow Street, Sebastopol.

A cautionary note about the Russian River

Due to heavy winter rains the Russian River is currently flowing at a faster rate than normal. This faster flow typically lasts through springtime into the early summer season. It is advised during this time to stay out of the river when it is moving this swiftly.

Designate a water watcher: Supervision could save a life.

Water Safety USA encourages everyone to heed this advice: Designate a water watcher when you are in, on or around water. Watch all children and adolescents swimming or playing in or around water, even if they know how to swim. Young children or inexperienced swimmers need to be within arm’s reach of an adult at all times. 


1. Learn to swim.  

2. Swim near a lifeguard.  

3. Swim with a buddy.

4. Children and inexperienced swimmers should be within arms reach of an adult while

in or around the water.

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