Top News

GUEST COLUMN: Lives lost, lessons learned

Margaret Freake and Hillary Salmons worked to get new life-saving PFDs to the Fogo Island Fire Department. -COURTESY OF BONNIE MCCAY-MERRITT
Margaret Freake and Hillary Salmons worked to get new life-saving PFDs to the Fogo Island Fire Department. -COURTESY OF BONNIE MCCAY-MERRITT - Contributed

A case for life jackets for all: By Roger R. Locandro

Andre Penton of Fogo Island died June 27 this year in a boating accident on a pond not far from his home in Joe Batt’s Arm.

The Fogo Island community mourns his death, with condolences to his wife Rita, his three sons and their families. Although his death was not directly due to drowning, it brought back my own memories of dangers on the water.

That tragic loss, together with the sight of many people coming and going from our harbours without life jackets on this summer, led me to reiterate what we all should know: No one should ever be on the water without personal life saving equipment on  — a life jacket for the ocean and large lakes, an inflatable jacket for streams and small inland lakes. Inflatables are not perfect but some people prefer them. In any case, buy the best you can afford and don’t take it off while on the water.

After you purchase a good life jacket, or personal flotation device (PFD), find a swimming pool or shallow lake and jump in.

Good life jackets, that fit correctly, will hold your head up out of the water even if you are unconscious.

While onboard a boat, don’t take off your jacket.  Accidents happen, and can do so in a split second, when there is no time to locate and put on a life jacket. 

To ensure safety, have a cell phone in a waterproof jacket or case, with a lanyard around your neck, and always be with a buddy — also with a life jacket.

Consider a waterproof flash light as well.

Consider learning to stay afloat and how to conserve your energy while waiting for a rescue.

Wear only kick-off boots. We lost a Newfoundland friend who tripped while fishing on a shallow, fast running salmon stream on the Northern Peninsula. He could not get up and drowned because he was wearing waders that filled with water.

People drown. Don’t take any chances on or around the water. I took chances and almost paid for it with my life.

Some years ago, I was commercial seining for salmon in the Gulf of Alaska, out of Cordova.

We were setting the seine; the water was only 3 degrees Celsius and running fast.

There were thousands of salmon under the boat and going into the net. I was working the port bow of the seine skiff when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the bow sprit of another boat. It hit our skiff square in the center of the transom, lifted the stern of the skiff to an angle where the skiff quickly rolled.

My partner was able to get out of the skiff by grabbing a rope that dangled from the gunnel of the other boat, and he vaulted up onto their deck.

I was not so lucky.

I was standing in the bow when the skiff revolved 180 degrees and, in the blink of an eye, found myself in the pitch black, dead air space under the overturned skiff, with no chance to find a life jacket. 

The big battery broke loose and bounced on my chest. I had grabbed the bow painter line when the other boat struck us, and I never let go. My situation: dive down and come up in the mesh of the seine net, or dive down to come up between the two boats.

I chose the latter, with no room to spare. I bladed my head and body to avoid being crushed. I still had hold of the painter and drifted in the fast running, cold water.

No one could see me.

Iinstead of wearing bright orange safety colours I was wearing goose hunting camouflage, and I could not remove my boots. I somehow levitated out of the water and managed to land on top of the bottom of the overturned skiff. I still can’t figure how I did that, certainly not without the help of God.

Meanwhile a giant Bering Sea crab vessel heard our mayday signal and came over to lift the skiff out of the sea and, like a toy, place it on its deck. Another godsend. I was safe and immediately went into shock, shaking uncontrollably.

I did not have a life jacket on nor could I have found one in time. Worse, my oil skins were not safety colors, like green or orange. They were camouflage! And the rest of the crew could not see me in the water until I appeared on top of the overturned skiff. Worse, I was wearing boots that would not come off.

Only miracles saved my life.

All this happened even though I was a professional life guard and water safety/swimming instructor and later became a university professor of fisheries and natural resources.

I know what denial is all about. But I still have bad dreams about the deep, black world under a skiff floating in the Gulf of Alaska and how close I came to losing my life there.

I still pray a lot. I learned to take precautions and am very saddened to see so many people on the water who do not wear life jackets, even when they are taking children with them. The children may have life jackets on, but who can rescue them if the boat collapses and everyone falls over?

If this sharing helps to save one more life it is worth it.

Please wear a good life jacket when you are on the water, from the time you get onto the boat or into a stream until you return.

Always wear safety colours, too. If not for yourself, you can be a valuable role model for the children.

Recent Stories