The Florida newspaper’s headline on May 25, 2012 read, “Man Drowns After Falling From Boat.” The story went on to say, “The Memorial Day holiday weekend began on tragic note on a local lake Thursday night. Authorities said Stephen Womack, 61, of Leesburg, (Fla.) drowned after apparently falling from his bass boat.”
The article shocked my wife and I, for Steve Womack was a friend and neighbor at our winter getaway on the Harris Chain of Lakes. A semi-retired master plumber, his hair was snow-white with matching beard and mustache, his robust build, ruddy complexion, ever-present smile, and twinkling blue eyes made him a perfect Santa Claus double.
The newspaper went on to say, “The incident should raise everyone’s concern for safety on the lakes and rivers and along the coast. Investigators said Womack put into Lake Eustis at a boat ramp to go across the lake and have his engine checked because it was giving him some trouble.
“But just before midnight, Womack's boat was found idling in the water and his body floating nearby. Womack was the 13th person to die on the water in Florida in 2012. Lake County Sheriff's Office Deputy Rich Winn was on marine duty for the Memorial Day weekend. He checked boats to make sure they have the safety equipment the law demands.
Relating one of his spot checks, Winn said, “On Mike Smith’s boat, all of the children were wearing life jackets – but not the adults. They’re not required to wear them, but it is recommended. They probably should be on. Some of us are a little hard-headed.”
The article concluded with, “One decision not to wear a life jacket could have fatal consequences. Womack was near the Tavares Recreation Park boat ramp when investigators believe he fell out of his boat and drowned.”
I had fished Lake Yale with Womack earlier in the year and when we pulled away from the launch, I noticed he was not wearing a life jacket nor was the kill switch attached. “Did you forget your life jacket and kill switch?” I asked.
“Our lakes are so shallow I usually don’t bother with the life jacket but I’ll attach the kill switch since we’re on plane,” he responded. We fished until hunger drove us off the water without any safety incidents – or fish. A cold front had given the bass a terminal case of lockjaw.
While lunching at a local fast food chain, I mentioned everyone aboard my boat has to wear a life jacket when the outboard is running and that I always attach the kill switch. Embarrassed, Womack admitted, “I should be more safety conscious, I’m not as young as I used to be and things happen fast in the boats we run today.”
Page 2 of 2 - An understatement to say the least, according to the U.S. Coast Guard 758 people died in boating related incidents during 2011. That fatality rate was nearly a 15 percent over the previous year. According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, two people drowned in boating related incidents at Lake of the Ozarks last year, neither was wearing a life jacket.
Seventy percent of the 2011 fatalities in boating accidents were by drowning, and like Womack, 84 percent were not wearing life jackets. Nine children under age 13 drowned, some were not wearing life jackets as required by state and federal law.
On the plus side, boat operators who received boating safety instruction accounted for only eleven percent of the deaths and operators who received safety instruction from a NASBLA (National Association of State Boating Law Administrators) approved course provider only accounted for seven percent of the deaths.
Womack’s family and friends miss him very much. His death was needless; especially when major sporting retailers offer recreational life jackets from $16 to professional jackets for $230 – of course the jacket is only effective when worn.
Boaters on Lake of the Ozarks who need children’s life jackets may borrow them from Dave Mungenast Yacht Club at 573-216-4701 or Ozark Village Resort (2 Mile Mark) at 573-365-2805.
No discussion about safety on the water would be complete without some enlightenment on the risks a few nonchalant boaters take.
As residents on Lake of the Ozarks, we often see an 18 to 24 foot bowrider cruising, on plane, with youngsters sitting on the bow gunnels with their legs hanging over the side. It is difficult to understand how any boat operator could allow this illegal and extremely dangerous act.
In Florida, we observe boaters towing youngsters on tubes. In northern and Midwestern waters, this activity would be perfectly acceptable. However, in Florida, where five to 10-foot-long alligators are an almost daily encounter, I do not think so.
My lifetime resolution – I choose to wear a life jacket, I refuse to be a drowning victim (or an alligator’s lunch).