Russian River Shawn Boland

The Russian River, dotted with pollen, looks tranquil but conceals hidden dangers. 

Co-chair of Sebastopol’s Learn to Swim program talks water safety in light of recent river and beach openings

One year ago, almost to the day, I wrote an article for Sonoma West Times and News about water safety in west county. I talked about the near tragedy of five people nearly drowning in the Russian River. This year I am talking about the real thing: the recent drowning of 13-year-old Diego Rivas in the river at the end of May. Another young man, Juan De Luna Romo, 25, of Valley Ford, drowned at Mother's Beach the same day that Riva's body was found. (“River shows its treacherous side,” Sonoma West Times and News, May 29, 2020.) 

The first story had a sad ending. The teenager has now been added to the US 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 to19. What is tragic, is that nearly all drownings are preventable.

I grew up in Sebastopol, and the Russian River was a favorite place to take the family swimming, as it still is. As a child I learned one thing about the Russian River — “Be careful of the holes” — and one thing about the coast, “Never turn your back on the ocean.” Despite this parental advice, I had a scary experience at both.  Both times adults were nearby, but I still got into trouble. It can happen in the blink of an eye.

Although the river is lower this year, and is not flowing quite so fast and cold as last year, that can make it even more dangerous. It does not look threatening to people who have never swam in it, but there is danger. There are those infamous “holes,” where one moment a bather is walking on solid bottom and then is in over their head. When the river is off-color, which it usually is, these hazards are hard to spot. There are drop offs, underwater obstructions and unexpected currents.

My wife and I visited several county beaches at the river a week ago. We were curious about swimming conditions for our grandchildren, who would soon be visiting. I saw that the river had its typical varying degrees of visibility, depth and current speeds. Parents are still going to have to watch their kids every second, and friends will need watch each other as well.  And then there were also Press Democrat photos of kayakers on the river without life jackets. Because I was once a lifeguard, I really don’t even like the idea of float tubing on the river without life jackets.

A big disappointment this year was the cancellation of the Sebastopol Rotary Club’s 36th Learn to Swim Program for all Sebastopol area second graders, which not only provides basic swim lessons, but also water safety training. My fellow Rotarian, Rick Wilson, and I, are co-chairs for this program, and we always emphasize water safety because of the Russian River and other county water ways. Unfortunately, almost 400 kids did not get a safety lesson that they could carry home to parent, siblings and friends.

Every year, Rick and I invite State Park Lifeguard Supervisor Sargeant Tim Murphy to talk to the second graders. The kids are always impressed by his uniform and rescue gear. He emphasizes very basic rules for the kids, and adults should heed them as well. Tim says, “Always swim with a buddy and have a plan and let family and friends know where you will be.” Finally, although it seems very obvious, he says “Always enter the water, anywhere, feet first.” This is absolutely necessary at the Russian River.

Murphy also wants the kids themselves to read signs warning of dangerous conditions at the beaches at the Russian River and make sure their parents do too. He well knows the hazards of our rugged coast, having made several rescues over the years of people who got too close to the ocean and were dragged in by the undertow. He also has had to rescue people who went into the ocean to rescue the family dog. As hard as it sounds, it should not be attempted in the frigid and turbulent ocean, and the pet usually can rescue itself.

In addition to the Sebastopol programs, the County Regional Parks has established the River Patrol Program.  Lesley Pfeiffer, Supervisor of Lifeguard Services for the county,  has announced that with the opening of swimming at Del Rio Beach (Healdsburg), Healdsburg Memorial Beach, Steelhead Beach, Sunset Beach, Forestville River Access (Mom’s), the county will have teams of lifeguards, who are experienced open water swimmers, checking on these beaches every day of the week. They are also adding a new beach, Cloverdale River Beach. While these beaches do not have regular lifeguards, the River Patrol lifeguards will be checking on the condition of the beaches, the well-being of users and offering suggestions for the safe use of the river. And they also aid in search and rescue efforts.

Another program which will soon be in effect at Regional Parks beaches is the lifejacket loaner program. Lesley says that the county will have racks of loaner life jackets to be used by members of families or groups that might not be strong swimmers. She also wants to remind people to stay hydrated while exposed to the sun on these beaches to avoid heat stroke and exhaustion.

“We want to help and do everything possible for folks to be happy, healthy, and at the end of the day get home safe,” Pfeiffer said.

There are a lot of folks making sure county residents can safely use our local waters. The final four tips come from Water Safety USA:

  • Learn to swim (as soon as pools can give swim lessons)
  •  Swim near a lifeguard if possible.
  • Swim with a buddy.
  • Children and inexperienced swimmers should be within arm’s reach of an adult while in or around the water.

Greg Jacobs is co-chair of Rotary’s Learn to Swim program. He is also a retired assistant Sonoma County prosecutor, who spent many years in his youth as a lifeguard at Ives Pool.

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