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Sandy Island: Swim lessons help banish fears

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

“Don’t panic” was the first rule Sandy Island residents learned in a series of water safety courses that wrapped up this week.

It sounds like a tall order to Beulah Pyatt, one of about 35 who participated. She isn’t sure she’d be able to stay calm if an accident left her in the water struggling to reach shore.

But her chances of keeping a cool head and surviving are a lot better than they were just one month ago.

“If an accident happened, I’m not sure what I’d do,” Pyatt said. “I might not be able to think straight, but I might remember some of what I learned here.”

Offered by HealthPoint and the Red Cross, the free weekly courses taught adults and children basic swimming, life jacket safety and rescue techniques.

The series was a response to the February drowning of three island residents when their boat capsized while they were on their way home during a storm. The island can only be reached by boat.

An adult, Tiffany Tucker, who was wearing a float coat, and two children survived the accident. Tucker was among those who attended the water safety courses.

On Tuesday, she and the other students in the adult class formed a human chain in one of the heated pools at HealthPoint. Holding tight to one another, they moved as one toward the center of the pool and back toward the shallow end.

They were smiling and laughing, clearly having a good time. But it was obvious they were paying close attention to what their instructors were saying.

While it might have looked like they were playing a game, they were learning a lifesaving technique called in-line rescue.

“If someone is in the water and they need help, and if you can walk in it without it going above your chest, you form a chain and pull them out,” explained Gary Nelson.

Students also practiced throwing out life rings and using towels and other objects that might be available to help tow victims to safety.

The skills taught were invaluable, said Nelson, 47, who couldn’t swim at all when the courses started. He lives in the Pawleys area, but said he signed up for the courses because he has family on Sandy Island and visits frequently.

Nelson said he feels safer traveling over water after the courses, but not as safe as he’d like.

“I’m still not a full-fledged swimmer, but I’m not going to stop until I am,” he said.

Nelson’s normal exercise routine is focused around weight-lifting, he said, but he plans to add swimming.

One of the most important things Nelson said he learned from the classes is the value of wearing a life jacket.

“They will keep you up,” he said. He’d had doubts about their ability to support a man of his size. He weighs in at well over 200 pounds, he said.

The lessons turned him into an advocate of life jackets, he said, and he’ll definitely wear one on the water in the future.

Pyatt said she couldn’t swim either before the classes. But having been at the mercy of the water before, she didn’t want to miss an opportunity to learn.

Pyatt said she was on a boat that sank more than 30 years ago. She survived because she was wearing a life jacket.

“There were five of us on a small boat,” she recalled. The wake of a larger boat swamped their boat.

No one died in the accident, and Pyatt said she still thanks God for that.

Pyatt said she feels more comfortable on the water now that she can swim and was surprised by how easy it was.

“It didn’t take me long,” she said. She clung to the rails at first, but was able to go completely under the water by the end of the first session.

There were a lot of success stories like that, said Rocco Salinari, director of health and safety for the local chapter of the Red Cross and an instructor for the series.

“There were people who, when they started, could swim a few feet and now they’re going completely across the pool and back,” he said. “People who were very skittish of even going near the water can now float and make forward progress, so if they’re in a dangerous situation, they could make it to shore or the dock.”

He was impressed by the attitude of those who attended. “You could tell they really wanted to be here,” he said.

Kevin Collins said his son, Louis, 11, looked forward to the lessons every week.

“He’ll worry me all afternoon about it, wanting to know if we’re coming over here to swim,” Kevin said.

The Collinses live in Georgetown, but have friends and family on Sandy Island, so they signed Louis up when he expressed an interest.

Louis started swim lessons a few years ago, but didn’t finish them.

“We wanted to bring him back out for a refresher,” Kevin said.

A number of the students already knew how to swim, but said they still found the classes helpful.

Kimberly Herriott, a Sandy Island resident, was in the advanced class, where she learned the back stroke and breast stroke. Already a strong swimmer, she said she didn’t get in the water until the last class, and only then because her three children dared her.

“They said I couldn’t swim, so I had to show them I could,” she said.

Her children, Joshua, 14, Brandon, 13 and Makaela, 11, also knew how to swim before the series, but she knew there would be other things they would be able to learn. And they had a good time with it, she said.

“I hope they’ll have another one of these,” Herriott said of the series. “I didn’t realize how much fun and just what a good learning experience it would be.”

Like Pyatt, she said she is still uncertain she’d be able to stave off panic if something happened, but “I’m a whole lot better prepared.”

Accident report in solicitor’s hands

The investigator’s report on the boat that sank off Sandy Island on Feb. 18, killing three people, has been sent to the solicitor.

Though there were still some details to be filled in, findings were sent to Solicitor Greg Hembree last week, said Sgt. Robin Camlin, who investigated the accident for the Department of Natural Resources. The report is being released only to parties involved in the case until the solicitor makes a judgement.

Hembree said he expects to have a ruling within 30 days.

However, he added that the missing details could lengthen that estimate, “depending on their significance.”

More questions may need to be asked and he may want to interview witnesses, which could take time.

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