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.