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Swim lessons by provider

Sonoma County Regional Parks: The final session of Vamos a Nadar will take place at Cloverdale Pool on July 18 and still has 20 available slots for children ages 5 and up. Sign up by calling 565-8034. A junior lifeguard program offers children an introduction to first aid and water rescue. The next available camp is Aug. 3-7. Registration is online at parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov.

Sonoma County YMCA: Swim lessons offered year-round in Santa Rosa as well and seasonally at Cloverdale Pool. See specific dates at www.scfymca.org/programs/swim_lessons.shtml.

Santa Rosa: Finley Aquatic and Ridgway Swim Center offer swim lessons to a range of ages and abilities on an ongoing basis. Check the website for availability or to register: srcity.org/departments/ recreationandparks/programs/aquatics/pages/default.aspx.

Petaluma: The Petaluma Swim Center and Cavanagh Pool are hosting lessons for a variety of ages between July and October through Swim America. Parents can register online at marinswimschool.com or at the pool.

Sebastopol: Ives Pool swim lessons are booked through July, but there is availability for the August session, which begins Aug. 3. Learn more at www.ivespool.org/lessons.html.

Healdsburg: Healdsburg Swim Center offers lessons through August. Register at the pool or learn more at www.ci.healdsburg.ca.us/254/Aquatics-Programs.

Windsor: The Windsor Swim Center is offering sessions throughout July and August. People can learn more or register by calling the Parks & Recreation Department at 838-1260.

Rohnert Park: Magnolia Pool and Honeybee pools are offering swim lessons through August. People can learn more online at rpcity.org or go in person to the Rohnert Park Community Center at 5401 Snyder Lane.

Those in charge of safety on local rivers and lakes have strengthened their plea for people to learn to swim or put on a life jacket before heading into the open water, after a teenage boy and a young man drowned in Sonoma County waterways on the Fourth of July.

Marquette Gross, 14, died after falling off an inflatable water toy being towed across Lake Sonoma on the same day 20-year-old Jose Campos-Campos perished in the Russian River near Monte Rio Beach. Neither knew how to swim and neither was wearing a life jacket, officials have said.

“If you can’t swim, wear a flotation device. It’s so simple,” said an exasperated-sounding Steve Baxman, chief of the Monte Rio Fire Department. He’s responded to numerous drownings on the Russian River over the years and helped save many others from the same fate.

“I wish it wouldn’t happen. These people are too young to be dying.”

As he and others were out scouring the river near Monte Rio Beach for Campos last Saturday, they assisted in the rescue of three other near-drowning victims, he said. And there are many other close calls each year that go unnoticed, said David Robinson of Sonoma County Regional Parks, which in 2013 created a river safety patrol whose three-person team also has prevented many drownings.

Baxman, Robinson and officials with the Army Corps of Engineers at Lake Sonoma say much already is being done to prevent such tragedies, but that more work is needed, including expanding swim class offerings and overcoming a perception of life vests as uncool and unmanly so that more teenage boys and men will wear them.

Baxman sits on the board of the Monte Rio Recreation and Park District, which oversees the beach where Campos accessed the water before he drowned. While signs there warn of river hazards, not everyone reads them, he said. Board members want to offer river swim lessons so people can learn the specific challenges of swimming in moving water. But they have struggled to find swim instructors, he said.

“If we get instructors it will happen this summer,” he said.

For now, some of the nearest swim lessons to the Russian River are provided at Ives Pool in Sebastopol. It’s one of the many locations around the county a bilingual swim program called Vamos a Nadar, or Let’s Go Swimming, is offered. Organized now by Sonoma County Regional Parks, Vamos a Nadar was developed more than a decade ago by a county water safety coalition created in response to a spike in drownings on the Russian River between 2001 and 2003. About 75 percent of the 21 who died in that short period were Latino, prompting the creation of lessons in both English and Spanish.

Parents must accompany their children to the one-day program, which provides an introduction to water safety and swimming. Kids go home with a voucher for steeply discounted swim lessons.

As of last year, parents can also return for adult swim lessons at Ives Pool, pool manager Ricardo Freitas said. Donors Chris and Virginia Anderegg have provided scholarships for adults who otherwise couldn’t afford the lessons, funding the classes for 11 of about 15 people so far this summer.

The pool also provides swim lessons to every Sebastopol and Graton second-grader each spring through a collaboration with the Sebastopol Rotary Club.

“It’s very sad to me to see a kid, 14 years old, and a man in his twenties die because they don’t know how to swim,” Freitas said. “It’s on my heart to teach the most people we can.”

The efforts appear to be working: Just one person drowned in the Russian River each year from 2009 to 2011, compared to five in 2003, according to data from the Sonoma County Regional Parks department.

But in 2012, the county saw another spike in river drownings. The people who died were either too old to participate in Vamos a Nadar or were from outside the county, Robinson said.

Recognizing the need to reach people on the river who might be from out of town and without access to local swim lessons, county parks in 2013 created the Russian River Water Safety Patrol, where a park ranger and two open-water lifeguards are stationed at popular county beaches to educate the public about water safety.

Robinson said many underestimate the river’s danger, unaware of how strong the current can be or that ankle-deep water can suddenly drop off into a 12-foot hole. Part of the safety patrol’s job is to educate people about those holes and how they change from year to year.

And both the county parks department and the Army Corps of Engineers at Lake Sonoma have set their sights on getting life jackets into the hands of as many people as possible.

Starting this month, Sonoma County Regional Parks brought on bilingual interns to distribute the vests at popular county beaches Thursday through Monday.

Part of their challenge is finding new donors so they can buy enough life vests to meet demand, Robinson said. On July Fourth, they ran out by noon after passing out about 400.

But it’s not a matter of simply providing life jackets: They must also overcome cultural resistance to wearing them.

State law requires that any water-going vessel must be equipped with a life vest for each person on board; additionally those under 13 must be wearing a properly fitted life jacket, said Mike Dillabough, chief of operations and readiness for the Army Corps of Engineers San Francisco district. However, there are no laws requiring swimmers of any age to wear them, he said.

“What we’ve found out is that across the nation, mothers are generally pretty good at this stuff, at wearing their own and getting their kids to wear (life jackets),” Dillabough said. “But teenage boys and men tend not to wear them.”

He says the Army Corps has studied making life vests mandatory but found that doing so was not particularly effective. Instead they’re trying to get people to don them voluntarily.

“That’s where you wonder how we can do better,” he said. “We’re trying to make the safety message more interesting.”

Efforts include stationing “trees” of free life vests at every public access point on Lake Sonoma. On busy weekends like July 4, rangers come by frequently to restock and offer vests to those without them, he said. Bins where the vests can be returned are provided.

Free life vests were also available at the private marina where 14-year-old Marquette Gross’s family was visiting, he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers is developing a new advertising campaign that speaks to teenage boys and men and tries to make wearing a life jacket seem tough.

Already, a sign near a stand of free vests at Yorty Creek Recreation Area shows Navy Seals crawling on a beach and says, “The toughest guys in the world wear life jackets!”

At the Russian River, Robinson said concerted efforts to get children to wear life vests have begun to rub off on adults who see their kids having fun with them.

“It’s kind of the theme of our beaches,” he said. “Peer pressure in a really positive way: ‘You wear a life jacket, I wear a life jacket.’”

Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach her at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.

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