Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lovely lakes also pose deadly dangers

Average 20 drownings each year in province: Lifesaving Society CEO

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Hot weather is sending Manitobans to the water in droves this summer.

Some won't survive if they end up in over their heads.

Gerald Brown almost didn't.

"I was pushed in the water at age 18," said the senior, who nearly drowned as a teen horsing around on a dock with friends. "Somebody had to come and rescue me."

Now, in retirement, he's made it his mission to teach other adults to swim and feel safe around water.

"It scared me so much I didn't want to sit in the bathtub," Brown said of his near-drowning. "The shower was the best I could do."

When he turned 25 and vacationed in Hawaii, he couldn't join friends having a good time in the water. It was time to face his fear, he said.

"I came back to Winnipeg and a lady at the St. Vital Y took me through the course."

Now he volunteers, teaching others how to swim at the YMCA downtown.

"This has been going on now for seven years," said the retired chief librarian for the Winnipeg School Division. He's taught more than 100 people to swim and survive.

"That's why I want to do it -- so they don't get caught in a situation like I was in at that lake," said Brown.

"I'm here to help people feel confident and have a healthy respect for the water."

An average of 20 people drown annually in Manitoba, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

Last week, a single dad swimming at a pool in Selkirk and an 83-year-old Winnipeg man tubing in Asessippi Provincial Park both died.

Most often, drowning victims hadn't planned to enter the water at all, such as those who fall off a dock or whose boat capsizes, said Carl Shier, CEO of the Lifesaving Society of Manitoba.

Drowning could be prevented if people wore life-jackets when they're around water, he said.

Another at-risk group is newcomers who come from places that aren't "water-rich" like Manitoba, Shier said.

The Lifesaving Society sends its instructors to talk to an average 1,500 newcomers a year about the hazards of living in a "water-rich" province. They visit English as an additional language classrooms across the city, Shier said.

"There are things you gotta know," he said.

For example, the chances are they or their kids will be around swimming pools and beaches and parents need to make sure there's supervision, Shier said.

"The beach patrols are not babysitters."

Adults are encouraged to learn to swim and equip their kids with personal flotation devices, he said.

Shier's glad to hear about Brown's learn-to-swim classes for adults.

"I commend him. I think those are wonderful things."

The adult beginner swim club at the downtown YMCA is free, informal, voluntary and co-ed, Brown said. There are no fees and no formal Y registration. Members pay their own admission.

The club just ended its seventh season with a graduation ceremony. A new session starts in the fall.

The club caters to folks who have never had a chance to learn to swim, have had a serious scare in the water or are just learning to speak English, he said.

His star pupil this year was Frances Pasco, 31. Pasco grew up in the Philippines and never learned to swim. The archipelago nation has many beautiful beaches he wants to see again and be able to enjoy this time.

"I was planning to go on vacation and do some swimming," said the electrical engineer, who came to Canada in 2007.

Learning to swim has changed how he feels about himself, he said.

"Before, I was lazy and tired." Now he swims laps at the pool most days. "My body is more fit."

Knowing his students can survive and thrive in the water world of a Manitoba summer is Brown's reward.

"That's why I'm there," he said. "My satisfaction comes from them being so successful when they've got it."

Manitoba tragedies

-- In Manitoba in 2011, 38 people died as a result of drowning, with 20 of them as a result of flooding and vehicles crashing and ending up under water.

-- In 2010, there were 21 drowning deaths recorded in the province. In 2009, there were 34.


-- source: Lifesaving Society of Manitoba

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 3, 2012 A4

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