s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe

Among the throngs of beachgoers who flocked to the Russian River for the Fourth of July holiday was a trio of folks with a seriousness of purpose out of step with the revelry around them.

With a focus framed by a history of preventable drownings on the waterway, the Sonoma County Regional Parks' new Russian River Water Safety Patrol was on a mission: to ensure all those celebrating on the river made it home safe.

Launched during the Memorial Day weekend, the patrol team includes a bilingual park ranger and two lifeguards willing to dish out unsolicited parenting to children — and parenting advice to adults — who may not have considered the river's risks.

Under the pilot program that organizers hope eventually will run seven days a week during the summer, the team circulates among four hot spots Thursday through Sunday each week, said David Robinson, who created the program in his role as aquatics specialist for Sonoma County Regional Parks.

It's their goal to talk to as many folks as possible — about 3,000 so far — to remind them how easily somebody can drown, to educate them about the river's shifting and uneven depths, and to promote swim lessons for those who need them.

The team has also made 10 rescues, just by being in the right place at the right time, Robinson said. Six happened last Sunday alone.

And for the past two weeks, with a grant of 150 bright blue life jackets from the California Division of Boating and Waterways, they've been distributing loaner life jackets, along with their regular advice urging parents to keep an eye on their children at all times and enroll them in swimming lessons.

The demand for the life vests is clearly greater than they can accommodate at present.

Even as the group turned up Thursday at Steelhead Beach near Forestville to recover life jackets, several parents eagerly approached them seeking new loaners for their kids.

The same was true downriver at Sunset Beach, where a crowd of kids and adults surrounded the patrol crew, cleaning them out of the potentially life-saving devices in minutes.

"People are getting used to seeing us and who we are," said veteran lifeguard Sabrina Spear, a longtime member of the regional parks staff who came out of retirement to join the outreach team.

"We didn't know what a hit it would be," Park Ranger Jesse Cablk said.

The patrol effort has evolved after a decade of concern about the number of deaths on the Russian River, a treasured resource and recreational destination that can turn suddenly deadly. Between 2002 and 2012, 21 people drowned in the river, five of them last year alone, Robinson said.

About 75 percent of the victims have been Latino, highlighting a cultural and perhaps socioeconomic gap that means swim lessons aren't an automatic feature of childhood.

A variety of public and private agencies created the "Vamos a Nadar," or "Let's Go Swimming," program in 2003 that has brought free, bilingual swimming lessons to about 2,300 kids. The effort has expanded from one pool at the YMCA to seven across the county, organizers say.

But the drownings continued, and Robinson said it became clear that many of the dead were people who wouldn't have been reached by the free swim program; they were too old or they lived outside the area.

"That really prompted us to think of a new way to bring that outreach and education to the beaches," Robinson said. "They weren't going to get it otherwise."

The patrol visits the four river access points under county parks jurisdiction that have had the highest number of water-related emergencies: Steelhead Beach, Sunset Beach and the Forestville Access Beach, also called Mom's Beach, as well as Riverfront Regional Park.

The effort's $30,000 budget is underwritten by a collection of corporations and public agencies that are sponsoring the county park system's first-ever, month-long Russian River Festival, highlighting the many recreational opportunities the river offers and featuring the July 27 Healdsburg Water Carnival.

Members of the patrol team say they've heard nothing but positive comments about the new project, even from those gently called to task for permitting young children to roam unsupervised in the water.

On July Fourth, for instance, Spear found herself several times standing with dripping children she'd brought out of the water from yards away so she could explain the need for supervision to their parents and coax a pledge from the kids to stay nearby, in shallow water.

"They were on the other side of the river there," she told one group of adults who had sought shade in a circle of trees at Steelhead Beach. "There's deep holes over there. It's also really busy today, and lots of canoes go right through there."

Down river, a common problem is the lure of a fast-moving, deep but deceptively long stretch of river between Hacienda and Sunset beaches that too often draws weak swimmers and children into situations they realize too late they can't handle, lifeguard Keith Renzi said.

"There's that illusion that, 'Oh, it's just over there,'" Spear said.

Parents seemed pleased with the program, and the demand for life jackets suggests they're filling a need.

"I feel comfortable knowing they are wearing them," Forestville father Pedro Cortez said after his two girls, Julie, aged 8, and Anette, 9, borrowed a pair.

"It's very good," said Arturo Mendez, who traipsed through the water with his 4-year-old daughter, newly fitted in a life jacket. "It's very good."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.