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A quick dip to cool off could spell trouble for novice swimmers, Lifesaving Society researcher says

With dozens of drowning deaths so far this year in Ontario, a senior research officer at the Lifesaving Society is reminding people that the ability to swim could make a huge difference as people seek to enjoy the water this summer.

'Learning to swim is like an immunization against drowning,' Barbara Byers says

Recently there were two drownings at the Guelph Lake Conservation Area in the space of two weeks. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

With dozens of drowning deaths so far this year in Ontario, a senior research officer at the Lifesaving Society is reminding people that the ability to swim could make a huge difference as people seek to enjoy the water this summer.

"We believe that learning to swim is like an immunization against drowning," Barbara Byers told CBC K-W.

"It's no guarantee, but it really helps your chances to be safe in the water and, as well, to have so much fun and enjoyment and all the water that we have in Canada with our short summers, to really enjoy the water."

The Lifesaving Society says as of Tuesday, there have been 54 drowning deaths in the province this year.

With scores of people opting for a staycation in Ontario, making day trips to a lake, conservation area or the beach, or just going camping, Byers is worried the number of drownings could go up, especially if people are not regular swimmers.

"One thing about swimming is it's kind of harder than it looks," Byers said.

"I think many people think, 'Oh, wow, I like the water, I can get in, I can kind of move my arms around a bit and I might be OK,' but really, you do need some lessons or some instruction to swim properly and certainly getting your breath and breathing control going." 

Barbara Byers with the Lifesaving Society is reminding people that 'drowning can happen very quickly in like 20 seconds, and it's very silent.' (Shannon Martin/CBC Toronto)

Byers said many people believe they can just go into the water, but she warned that lakes especially can be deceptive.

"If you're in a situation where you're at a lake [and] it's easy to enter the water, it's a sandy beach area and you start walking in and you're playing and having fun, if you're not a strong swimmer and you take a step and you're in a drop off area, that could be just absolutely devastating, because bam, you're over your head, you've got your head under the water, maybe you get a mouthful of water," she said. "It's sudden, it's unexpected."

Byers is also reminding people that "drowning can happen very quickly in like 20 seconds, and it's very silent." Just a mouthful of water can impair a person's airway, she said.

"I think this time of year, there's often a lot of that, people just in the water … but maybe [they] don't have the skills and training to be safe in water that's over their head."

Recent drownings

Over the civic holiday long weekend, a man also drowned after falling off a boat in Lake Ontario while another man died while tubing.

Recently there have also been two drownings at the Guelph Lake Conservation Area over a two week period.

Hilal Ahmad Najeebi, 14, of Mississauga, drowned on Sunday while swimming near the island in Guelph Lake. On July 18, Rayan Kaber, 21, also of Mississauga, drowned while swimming at the main beach. The conservation area has buoy lines installed at both swimming areas in the park.

Grand River Conservation Authority spokesperson Cameron Linwood said the authority is working with Wellington County OPP "to share water safety information as a result of the two tragic drownings at Guelph Lake this summer."

"Visitors to Grand River conservation areas are strongly encouraged to take personal responsibility to ensure safety for themselves and their children ... especially activities taking place on or near water bodies," Linwood said in an email.

Linwood said swimmers are encouraged to: 

  • Swim in designated areas and stay within the buoy line.
  • Swim only at marked beaches or pools and always swim with a buddy.
  • Wear a personal floatation device.
  • Leave the water if a thunderstorm or lightning is approaching (this applies to any activity in or near water).
  • Be aware there are no lifeguards are on duty.
  • Know that water rescue equipment is located at all designated swimming areas and boat launches within the conservation area.

Absence of swimming lessons

Byers said she's been very concerned over the last two years about the absence of swimming lessons, mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said the Lifesaving Society runs a program called Swim to Survive, which offers survival swimming programs for Grade 3 and Grade 7 students.

COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the program for a year, but Byers said it will be back this fall.

"And I'm pleased to hear that municipalities are starting back with swimming lessons as they have done so this summer … so I hope parents can get back into the habit of enrolling their kids in lessons," she said.

Meanwhile, Byers is urging people who plan to go swimming this summer to "be very cautious of yourself" and to be "particularly cautious with children just to make sure they're not beyond their skill level or their ability."

She says when in doubt, people should wear life jackets.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Desmond Brown

Web Writer / Editor

Desmond joined CBC News in October 2017. He previously worked with The Associated Press, Caribbean Media Corporation and Inter Press Service. You can reach him at: desmond.brown@cbc.ca.

With files from Kate Bueckert

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