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HELSTON: What you can learn from a near tragedy on Okanagan Lake

Charlotte Helston is the Vernon reporter for InfoNews.
August 14, 2015 - 8:01 AM

Warnings to stay safe on the water have become to summer what drunk driving campaigns are to Christmas and telephone scam alerts are to grandparents. They’re good and important messages, but ones that tend to lose their kick over time like an old wind-up toy.

Organizations work hard to find new ways of connecting these undeniably crucial messages with the public, trying clever catchphrases, eye-catching bus banners and educational workshops. One way they get the word out is through the media. As a reporter, I believe in the importance of spreading life-saving information, of relaying these essential messages to our readers — especially when I report on water-related tragedies that could have been prevented. But I often feel a sense of futility as I write up yet another don’t-forget-your-hat-and-sunscreen-and-lifejacket-story. Are people still paying attention?

And then a story comes along that shows us, without telling us, how valuable lifejackets really are. Last weekend, two sisters, age 11 and 12, took an inflatable kayak out on Okanagan Lake. As they were leaving, a quick-thinking aunt noticed they weren’t wearing lifejackets and beckoned them back. She probably saved their lives. It didn’t take long for the young girls to drift a good distance from the shore. One got out to try towing the boat back, and as she did, the other fell out. The feather-light inflatable boat was gone in an instant, blown adrift by the wind.

The girls were stranded for close to two hours. They screamed for help as boats passed by, but no one came. If the passersby heard their faint calls — distorted by the wind on the lake — they probably wouldn’t have seen them. The girls were becoming too exhausted to wave; their small arms only sticking inches out of the water.

Their panicked family enlisted the help of a former fire chief, Wayne Carson, who took off in his Seadoo and found the kayak. Relief washed over him, but it was painfully brief. The girls weren’t there. Carson began a grid search around the kayak, straining his eyes on the water in the fading, 9 p.m. light. A thought crossed his mind: Would this be another fatality?

About five minutes after starting his search, he caught sight of them out the corner of his eye. They were cold, physically drained, and frightened, but still breathing, bobbing above the water in their lifejackets.

“Without those lifejackets, it would not have ended this way. We’d be looking at a tragedy,” Carson says.

At least one of the girls was a strong swimmer, but in the circumstances, that didn’t matter. She needed that life vest and is lucky her aunt had the wherewithal to put her in it.

Imagine those two girls were your daughters, your little cousins, or siblings. Picture them, teeth chattering, stranded in the middle of a lake after things went unforeseeably wrong. Picturing them in lifejackets brings a little comfort, doesn’t it? It envelops that sickening feeling in your gut and buoys you up with hope.

A tragedy reminds us why we need to exercise safety while on the water. A happy ending shows us that it works. And that, to me, is more powerful than any safety campaign.

To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at chelston@infonews.ca or call 250-309-5230. To contact the editor, email mjones@infonews.ca or call 250-718-2724.

News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2015
InfoTel News Ltd

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