MARIETTA – Bob Hardison of Marietta Wednesday was sitting on a bench overlooking the Ohio River near the Lafayette Hotel parking lot where he spotted a man swimming across the river from the West Virginia side.
“I looked up and saw this guy’s head just above the water. At first I thought it was a dead body,” Hardison said. “But he was in the middle of the river and seemed to be struggling in the current. He just kept moving downriver at a pretty good clip.”
Hardison said someone must have called 911 because a Marietta Fire Department rescue truck and the fire boat responded. By the time rescuers arrived, the man made it to shore on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property near the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers.
The swimmer who assured them he was OK, but officers did not obtain the man’s identification.
“He looked like he was pretty worn out,” Hardison said. “I know how to swim, but it’s not a good idea to try to swim across that river.”
A recent survey by the American Red Cross revealed more than half of all Americans can’t swim or don’t have basic swimming skills in a country where an average of 10 people daily die from unintentional drownings.
“It’s important for everyone to learn how to swim. A lot of people are out on the rivers during the summer months, and being able to swim is obviously one of the best ways to help prevent drowning,” said Marietta firefighter and dive team member Eric Moore.
He urged boaters and others in and around area waters to make use of life jackets and other flotation devices.
“Keep life jackets available, and make sure children are always wearing a life jacket around local rivers and streams,” Moore said.
Life jackets are important to help keep a victim’s head above water, but being able to swim is as important to move out of harm’s way, he said.
Moore recalled a July 2012 incident when a Reno man drowned near Devol’s Dam on the Muskingum River in Devola.
“He was found in an area of deeper water, and had apparently lost his footing in the current,” he said. “Even the best of swimmers can have trouble in swift current, especially when the river levels are high.”
Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks also was at the scene of that drowning.
“That victim was just wading across the river with some friends,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to have some kind of flotation device anytime you’re in the rivers.”
Mincks said there’s a lot of recreation on the local rivers as well as along the river banks.
“We have a tremendous amount of shoreline on these rivers where people may be fishing or swimming,” he said. “And parents should make sure their children know how to swim.”
Alcohol also figures into many drownings, Mincks said. Drinking and operating a boat full of people can have disastrous results.
Learning to swim is not that difficult, according to Suzy Zumwalde, director of the Marietta Family YMCA, which offers swimming lessons year-round at the Y’s indoor pool to non-members and members alike.
“Anyone can learn to swim. And that’s important when you’re living in an area with two major rivers,” she said. “We can start swimming lessons for kids at age 3, but parents can begin getting children used to being in the water at as early as six months.”
Zumwalde said a fear of water may impact whether a person will try to learn to swim.
“But the longer you wait, the worse that fear can become,” she said. “That’s why it’s good to get children used to being in water from an early age.”
During the school year the YMCA has monthly classes that meet twice a week for four weeks, Zumwalde said. In the summer the classes meet four times a week, Monday through Thursday, for two weeks to help accommodate family vacations.
“We’ll also offer lessons at the Belpre city pool that we’re managing this summer,” she said.
Swimming lessons are also available for all ages Saturday mornings at the Betsey Mills Club in Marietta which also has an indoor heated swimming pool.
In addition, swimming lessons will be offered at the Marietta Aquatic Center, Beverly Village pool and at the pools in Williamstown and in Vienna at Jackson, according to Mike Bishman, owner of Professional Pool Management that has contracts to operate all four of those facilities this summer.
“Each pool will have a different schedule, but anyone interested can contact their local pool to find out when the classes will be offered,” he said. “Typically it’s just good to know how to swim, but definitely in an area surrounded by rivers.”
Bishman said classes offered by Professional Pool Management not only include swimming lessons, but also teach general water safety.
“For example, if someone is in the water and in trouble, should you jump in and try to help or should you alert someone and try to find a way to help without placing yourself in danger?” he asked. “That’s the kind of water safety we teach.”
Bishman said lifeguards are trained to try and assist victims from outside the water by using flotation devices or reaching them with poles or other means. He said getting into the water with the victim is generally used as a last resort.
“In area rivers I think people don’t often consider how powerful the current can be when swimming, and it’s not a good idea to dive into water when you don’t know if there’s a log, rock, or some other structure just beneath the surface,” he said. “So we teach swimmers how to properly enter the water.”
The Professional Pool Management basic swimming classes take two weeks to complete for about a half-hour every day, Bishman said, adding that private one-on-one classes are also available.
The swimming students are tested on what they’ve learned before being allowed to move on to higher-level classes, he said.
“Sometimes they may have to take the course more than once to pass, but that’s not anything to be embarrassed about,” Bishman said. “Some people may learn faster than others, but we don’t want to pass someone into a higher class until we’re sure they’re ready to move on.”