Don’t discover what it’s like to drown

G. Sam Piatt - PDT Columnist

They say drowning is not a bad way to die, at least from the pain standpoint.

And aside from the panic it induces.

The lungs simply fill up with water, the brain winks out, and all is blackness.

The victim’s body is left to bump along the bottom, free game to fishes and turtles. Rescue crews will drag the area with hooks and ropes. If not located, and if not caught on an underwater snag, it will rise to the surface in a day or two, no longer the loved one mourned by family and friends, but a smelly, bloated, discolored corpse.

As the boating season gets under way this Memorial Day weekend, let’s do our best to not find out what it’s like to drown. After all, we’re supposed to be out there having fun, not inviting tragedy.

Those who enforce the boating regulations in Ohio and Kentucky say eight out of 10 people who die in boating accidents die as a result of drowning,

“A large majority of those fatal accidents in Kentucky and in the nation involve not collisions, but people falling overboard,” said Lt. Mike Fields, boating safety coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

A personal floatation device – commonly called a life preserver or lifejacket – won’t save you if it isn’t worn. Modern personal floatation devices not only keep you afloat, but they keep your head above water and reduce your risk of drowning.

“When air temperatures reach the 80s, most people forsake their personal floatation devices. When people think of lifejackets, they think of those old, orange, uncomfortable ones from years ago,” Fields said. “Technology’s come a long way in the last few years in regards to lifejackets. They are lighter, less bulky and cool.”


Over the years I’ve fallen out of fishing boats on lakes from Greenbo to Erie. I’m not at all proud to admit that in none of those baptisms was I wearing a lifejacket.

However, I can swim like a fish. Like riding a bicycle, once you learn to swim, you never forget how.

I grew up on the shore of the Ohio River and had my first and only drowning experience at the age of 11. It came after I dove 25 feet from the limb of a water maple into the rain-swollen river, which, where it surrounded the tree, was 15 feet deep. It was the last of initiation tests I needed to pass in order to become a member of the Beattyville Braves.

I couldn’t swim a lick, but I figured there wasn’t much to it. I had seen pups swim the first time they were tossed into the water. Surely I would be able to “doggie” enough to make it to the shore.

When I surfaced following the dive, I flailed at the water with my arms and tried a paddlewheel motion with my hands. But my feet wouldn’t come up, and down I went again.

I swallowed a gallon or two of river water before I managed to fight my way back to the surface, realizing that there was more to this swimming than I had thought – and realizing, too, that I was drowning.

Almost apologetically, I yelled, “Help-p-p-p!” Then I went under again.

My cohorts, believing I could swim else I would never have dove from that tree, thought I was putting them on.

Thankfully, though, my good ol’ big brother, Bruce “Bootie” Piatt Jr., who knew I couldn’t swim, had come down from the nearby hayfields to cool off and was watching the whole proceeding from the shore.

In a flash, he had me by the hair of the head, pulled me to the surface, and side-armed me to shore, where I coughed and sputtered and discharged a sizable amount of the Ohio River.

I was headed up the bank for home, disgraced, when John Vinson Euton, the leader of the Braves, called me back. He said it was the bravest thing he’d ever seen – me diving from that tree into 15 feet of water and knowing I couldn’t swim.

The other four members of the club agreed.

He pricked our forefingers with a straight pin, then pressed them together.

Blood brothers! I was a full-fledged member of the Beattyville Braves.

Before that summer was over, I could swim that wide river (in the vicinity of where the Carl Perkins Memorial Bridge stands today) from shore to shore and back again.

G. Sam Piatt

PDT Columnist

Reach G. SAM PIATT at [email protected] or (606) 932-3619.

Reach G. SAM PIATT at [email protected] or (606) 932-3619.