A total of 91 people have drowned in Napa County over the last 21 years—and average of four per year.
Most were adults—the average age was 29.5—and nearly half were in Lake Berryessa, according to the Napa County Sheriff’s Office. At least 19 victims were known to have been drinking before they died.
The number of people who drown in the county fluctuates each year, said Sheriff’s Capt. Steve Blower. “It’s kind of like a wave.”
Before the summer even started, Napa County saw two drownings – one of a 15-year-old boy in Lake Berryessa, the other a vineyard worker performing a routine check on a reservoir in St. Helena. Both individuals were reportedly good swimmers.
So, why did they, and 89 others who may also have been “good swimmers,” drown?
The Lake Berryessa drowning victim, Jose Sartunino Garcia, disappeared in 10 to 20 feet of water near the Oak Shores Day Use Area on May 1. According to witnesses, “he was all of a sudden under water and didn’t come up,” Blower had said. The drowning occurred a short distance from shore where the lake bottom drops sharply, he added.
Blower cautioned that a lake can be a much more dangerous place than a swimming pool unless you are a strong swimmer. A suddenly fatigued swimmer can get into trouble, panic and drown in a matter of seconds, he said.
“When you’ve had a day of fun, you don’t realize how tired you’ve gotten,” he said. Swimming across a river inlet or from one boat to another is much different than swimming from one end of a pool to the other, he said.
“There’s not that many controls there on a big lake like that,” Blower said.
Between 1995 and 2016, 41 people have drowned in various areas of Lake Berryessa including Oak Shores, Spanish Flat, Steele Canyon, Capell Cove, Pleasure Cove, Smittle Creek, Markley Cove and Tully Canyon.
Lake Berryessa is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the state, 23 miles long and three miles wide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Blower said that Lake Berryessa, being a large, man-made lake, doesn’t have beaches like most natural lakes. Instead of having a gradual depth, it sometimes dips straight down, he said. “There can be drop-offs and stuff and all of a sudden you can’t touch the bottom.” If you slip, you may become surprised, grasp for air, get some water in the airway, shutting it down, he said.
“You can’t see far into the water,” Blower said. The water is green – not clear, which makes it difficult to find someone who may be drowning, he said.
It’s also difficult to tell how deep the water in the lake is, and the temperature can change quickly, said Tami Nixon, owner of Makai Swim School in Napa.
Nixon, who has been teaching swimming lessons for 42 years, said that it is important to get to know the water you’re swimming in whether it is a new pool, a lake or the ocean. Even with all her swimming experience, she said that she watches the water first and, if there is a lifeguard on duty, asks them about the conditions of the water.
But the lake isn’t to blame – people drown for all sorts of reasons.
The most common reasons for drowning is a lack of water safety knowledge, the inability to swim, a lack of supervision, fatigue, alcohol consumption and medical emergencies like a heart attack or seizure, said Ashley Houghton, pool manager and lifeguard at the Yountville Community Pool.
“Swimming is a fun leisure activity, but can quickly become life-threatening when alcohol is involved, “ Houghton said. Swimming and drinking can be extremely dangerous because of the effect that alcohol can have on your body. “Alcohol decreases your body’s motor abilities and increases fatigue, which are two things you do not want to have happen while swimming,” she said.
Between 1995 and 2015, the most drownings were in 2006 when nine people drowned, statistics show. Seven had a blood alcohol content of .04 percent or higher.
“It’s a mixture of alcohol and water most of the time – it’s just not a good combination,” Blower said. Just because you’re with a group, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe to drink on the water, so make sure you’re people you trust. “Other people who are partying might not realize you’re in distress until it’s too late.”
“When you’re drinking and partying… people do stupid things,” Blower said. Adding alcohol to an already tiring activity paired with the hot sunshine can be dangerous, he said.
Trying to save someone else who is drowning can get you killed, too, he said. “Unfortunately sometimes somebody else can drag you under.”
This almost happened to Nixon when she and her son got caught in a rip current in Hawaii, she said. Her son, who was 6 at the time, started to climb on her because he was tired, she said. She instructed him to float and the two went flat on their backs, holding hands until they had enough energy to keep swimming. “If he didn’t know how to float on his back, he probably would’ve died” and brought her with him, she said.
“A lot of times, people drown because one is trying to save the other,” Nixon said. So, if someone is in distress and you cannot touch the bottom, be sure to “throw before you go,” she said. Throw a ring buoy or flotation device to the victim or push it to the victim’s chest area so they can grab it, she said. “Be sure not to get too close as they will grab you and down you both go,” Nixon said.
If you get pulled under by the victim, take a big breath in and bring them deeper in the water, Nixon said. Push them away from you then grab the flotation device and give it to them, she said.
Nixon advises parents to practice swimming with their children in deeper water. Never try to hold them with two hands while swimming – always place the child on your hip and swim a side stroke, she said.
Although not everyone knows how to float on their back, it is one of the first things Nixon teaches in her classes, she said.
Houghton also said that, if you think you’re drowning, “getting your body to a floating position on your back is ideal.” It will allow for your airway to remain clear while letting your body relax, she said. And relaxing can save your life.
“That’s why people drown, they panic,” Nixon said. Many people push water down with their hands while trying to stay afloat, but there’s no need for that, she said.
“Remember the Titanic,” Nixon said. “When it was flat in the water it was fine, when it was vertical, it sank.”