A mission to make boating safe in Osoyoos Lake

A mission to stop drowning

Every summer seemingly without fail, someone tragically and unnecessarily drowns in Osoyoos Lake. In 14 years of living and working in Osoyoos Sgt. Jason Bayda, commander of the Osoyoos RCMP has seen at least one or two drownings, and even as high as three or four in one year.

Because of the fact most of these deaths could have been prevented if boaters had the right equipment on board, were wearing life jackets, and actually knew of the local hazards, Bayda wants to do something about it and he’s looking for help.

What he is proposing are Life Jacket Stations, to be located at boat launches around Osoyoos including Osoyoos Marina, sw?iw?s Provincial Park and at the Osoyoos Indian Band’s Nk’mip Campgrounds.

The concept is not new, these stations providing free lending of lifejackets is very common in the US and even here in the Okanagan have been operating in Kelowna for a number of years.

“They don’t have a safe boaters guide and how many times have we had people hit the shallow waters near Haynes Point (sw?iw?s), how many people don’t know what the yellow bouys are for and how many people don’t know how slow they need to go under the bridge or the height of the bridge?”

My vision at the boat ramp is to have a nice gazebo which costs around $2,500, walled in on three sides, a picture of Osoyoos Lake showing the shallow areas and areas to be careful in. A QR code so boaters can scan it with their cell phones to get information about boating safety and a list of safety equipment they need.”

And there would be an area for life jackets - for kids and adults - which boaters can borrow at no cost. He notes that while some lifejackets may never return, he believes there is “more good people than bad people”.

A Rotary member who was involved in the Kelowna project commented that theft was actually a very small issue. As Bayda noted, “the value of a lifejacket is nothing compared to the value of a person’s life.”

He suggested that with assistance from service groups like Rotary, with volunteers to pour a concrete pad for instance and grant money that is available for boating safety from Transport Canada, it would be possible to put his plan into action.

The reception from the Rotary members was overwhelmingly positive with pledges that the group will discuss and consider how they can help.

He notes that in all his experience and that of other officers is that the majority of drownings are adults.

Parents almost always put life jackets on their kids but often fail to wear one themselves because they think being able to swim protects them.

“But you’re never prepared for the worst, you never know when you’re going to take that water in. I’ve dealt with enough drownings to know that a person drops like a rock.

“They take in water and it doesn’t matter how good of a swimmer they are, they drop like a rock.”

Bayda began his talk with a touching and at times emotional presentation detailing the tragic circumstances around “Sam” who drowned in Osoyoos Lake in August of 2015.

While reluctantly giving a woman a ride on his Sea-Doo that summer day with only one life jacket, he gave it to her to use. Hitting a wave off of White Sand Beach both Sam and the woman were tossed off the Sea-Doo. She was rescued by a sailboat and Sam was no where to be found.

“So it was now up to us as the RCMP to start a search and find Sam,” Bayda said. “There’s three things that could’ve happened - either he swam to shore, or he’s still on the surface of the water trying to swim but the waves are just hiding him, or he’s gone down. Unfortunately, this situation it was the last one, he went down.”

An extensive search by both the RCMP and the public turned up no sign of the young man.

This then brought in the RCMP’s Underwater Recovery Team who are specialized in underwater searches using sonar. Unfortunately with high demand for their services in the summer they were forced to quit the search after one day. It was left to me to tell the family that the search was done, your loved one isn’t coming home today and we don’t know when, if ever. It’s not something I was prepared to do.”

But Bayda had another idea: To bring in the famous husband and wife team of Gene and Sandy Ralston who are world leaders in finding victims of drowning.

In the end after 50 days of on and off searching it took the skills of an American cadaver dog trained to find bodies underwater along with Ralston’s sonar to find Sam.

He says it was an amazing thing to see. “The dog jumped off the boat swam about 4.5 m (15 feet) out to where it was picking up a scent and started swimming in a figure-eight and digging in the water. Sam was found in 22 metres (73 feet) of water." Bayda notes that even after 50 days a body lying on the lake bed releases enough gas through gradual decomposition for the dog to pick up the scent.

“Born in 1981 he died four days after his 34th birthday in our waters here, and he was a hell of a guy. I shed a lot of tears the day we found him. I didn’t meet him in the traditional way, but I still truly feel that I’ve met him through his family, learning everything about him.”

Bayda would like to dedicate the lifejacket stations to the Ralstons for all the work they do around the world, and of course, in memory of Sam.

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