Boat traffic on Lake Wylie was lighter on Friday afternoon than it usually is to start the weekend, but Sgt. Wayne Richardson says that’s normal after there’s been a drowning.
Kenneth Varnadore, whose body was pulled from the water Thursday, is the sixth person killed in Lake Wylie this year and the fourth person to die on the York County side of the lake in less than three weeks.
There have been six drownings so far this year in York County, according to unofficial numbers from the York County Coroner’s Office. At the same point last year, there had been four drownings.
Emergency officials say they’ve seen an increase in the number of water-related calls for service and rescue this summer, which they attribute to the growing population in the area.
Law enforcement and first responders adjust their hours, coordinate shifts with other agencies, hand out information to boaters and write tickets, but Richardson, who is on the York County Sheriff’s Office lake patrol, says there’s only so much they can do to prevent accidents and fatalities on the water.
“We’ve done everything possible,” he said. “People aren’t going to wear life jackets like they should.”
Life jackets are the main thing that can prevent drownings in still water such as the lake, Richardson said.
“If you refuse to wear one, it’s like not wearing a seat belt when you’re in an automobile,” he said. “I have yet to recover a body that had a life jacket on.”
Boats are required by law to have enough life jackets for each person on board, but except for children under 12, there’s no law requiring that they be worn. Richardson says people often have life jackets on board but don’t have them readily accessible, and there’s not enough time to get them when trouble arises.
A newer option that Richardson said is growing in popularity is an inflatable life vest that automatically inflates when the person wearing it goes into the water.
“If you’ve got an $80,000 boat, what’s $200 more for a great life jacket?” he said.
One hazard law enforcement has encountered on the water this year is jet skiers not obeying the law that says they can’t operate the watercraft in excess of idle speed within 50 feet of docks, piers, people and other vessels. That goes along with people not knowing the regulations and laws of the waterways, he said, including the use and meaning of navigational lights.
“They get a boat and they don’t know the laws,” he said. “When you don’t know the law and one person does, you usually have to figure it out on your own by mistake, and that sometimes can be tragic. ... If you understand what boating is all about, always be prepared for the one who doesn’t.”
Another issue is people getting out in boats that they don’t know how to operate, Richardson said. Deputies conduct regular boating safety checks on the water and find that many people don’t know where their boat’s fire extinguishers are, or how to operate them.
Richardson recalled trying to flag down a boater who was coming into the marina at a high rate of speed.
“He looks up and says, ‘I can’t find the brake,’” he said.
South Carolina has no boating course requirement or licensing procedure to operate a boat except for children under 16, but the sheriff’s office provides free boating safety courses to teach people the laws and regulations of boating.
Rescuing people from the water can be just as dangerous for the rescuers as it is for the people in distress, according to Terri Cook, deputy commander for Carolina Dive and Rescue. The agency has seen a “tremendous” increase in calls this year compared to last year, he says, and they work with multiple other agencies including the sheriff’s office, Tega Cay Police, the fire departments in Rock Hill and Charlotte and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to help people who get in trouble in the water.
“We’ve already responded to more calls so far this year than we did all of last year,” he said, adding that the majority of the calls are for rescues on the Catawba River.
Anyone in a kayak or canoe must have a whistle and a life jacket, Cook says, but again, they’re not required to wear them. Carolina Dive and Rescue has responded to some calls in which people were stranded in the water and their life jackets were swept away because they weren’t wearing them.
Both Cook and Richardson say alcohol is a factor in many of the calls they receive.
“Just about all the calls we go on, somebody’s been drinking,” Cook said.
Whatever amount of alcohol it takes to impair someone on land, Richardson says, it takes only a third of that to impair a driver on the water because of other factors like the sun, the noise and the movement. He reminded lake-goers that alcohol also impairs judgment, causing people to make unsafe decisions around the water.
“We’ll come across people trying to swim across the channel two or three times a day,” he said. “That’s a very long swim. It doesn’t look that far standing on top of that vessel, but when you get in that water, it’s a long way.”
It’s important to take note of landmarks and your location so you can help first responders get there quicker if you get in trouble on the water, according to Ralph Merchant, 911 operations manager for York County Public Safety Communications.
“Know your surroundings – where you are, where you’re going,” he said. “You can’t always depend on your phone and GPS. Technology is there, but it’s not 100 percent accurate or dependable.”
Cook says he’s assisted in recovering about 180 drowning victims between his time with the U.S. Coast Guard and Carolina Dive and Rescue. One that sticks out for him is the death of 19-year-old T Lah Kwan Khalid Muhammad, a Fort Mill High School graduate and football player who drowned last August while swimming with friends in Lake Wylie.
“He went out for one last hoorah with his buddies because his momma and daddy were taking him to college in West Virginia the next day where he had a football scholarship,” Cook said. “A life jacket would have prevented it. Drownings are senseless deaths – they are so easily prevented.”
Carolina Dive and Rescue crews will keep training so they can act quickly when people need help on the water, Cook says. He added that in a perfect world, training would be the only reason they have to take their trucks and equipment out.
“Unfortunately, we’re not in that perfect world,” he said.