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There were 18 drownings in Mass. in May alone. Here’s why such tragedies may be on the rise

This year’s succession of drownings has officials calling for increased safety awareness

YMCA Aquatics Director Jack Donovan instructed Abraham Fairchild (left) and Avery O'Hare during a swim lesson at the YMCA in West Roxbury on Wednesday.
YMCA Aquatics Director Jack Donovan instructed Abraham Fairchild (left) and Avery O'Hare during a swim lesson at the YMCA in West Roxbury on Wednesday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In mid-May, two cousins drowned as they skipped stones in a Brockton lake. Neither knew how to swim and one died trying to save the other, who had fallen into deeper water. Eleven days later, as the temperature soared into the 90s, a teenage boy drowned after jumping from a rope swing into a Framingham pond that was roughly 60 degrees.

In all, there were 18 drownings in Massachusetts last month, more than the previous three Mays combined. And in June, there have been a series of tragedies with aching similarities. On June 4, a Worcester police officer died in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue a teenage boy. On Sunday in Rhode Island, a 10-year-old drowned after strong currents swept her off a sandbar. A bystander died trying to save her. The same day, a teenage boy drowned in Bedford, N.H., after swinging from a rope into a pond. Then on Wednesday, a 60-year-old man died after being pulled from a backyard pool in Shrewsbury, followed by the death of a 19-year-old Thursday in a pond in Hyde Park.

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From beaches to backyard pools, drownings are all too familiar with the onset of hot weather. But this year, a host of factors, from a receding pandemic and exceptionally warm weather, to a shortage of lifeguards and swimming lessons, may have contributed to the surge of drownings, water safety specialists said.

“This really has been an unfortunate confluence of circumstances,” said Peter Doliber, chief executive of the Alliance of Massachusetts YMCAs, which offer swim lessons and free water safety instruction to people across the state. Many of those classes were canceled during the early stages of the pandemic.

“For a time, Ys weren’t open and school was remote, so the natural settings where we teach these things weren’t available.”

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Drowning is the leading cause of death by unintentional injury for Massachusetts children younger than 15, and so far this year the rates have climbed sharply. Through May, there were 47 drownings in Massachusetts, about double the number through May 2020, when there were between 22 and 28. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health said those figures include “non-fatal drownings, in which someone was transported to the hospital for a water-related issue, regardless of whether or not they ultimately died.” The agency also does not specify drowning numbers in months with fewer than five to protect the privacy of victims.

There are race and income divides among the tragedies. Drowning death rates for Black people are 1.5 times higher than for whites, and are 3.6 times higher for Black children ages 10-14 than white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And a 2017 study found that nearly 80 percent of children in families with household income less than $50,000 have no or low swimming ability.

The early arrival of hot weather, including the longest June heat wave since 1925, also brought eager swimmers into precariously cold water.

“If you’re a new swimmer, swimming in cold water, it can be very dangerous,” said Jeff Hall, a former member of the Coast Guard and spokesman for the American Red Cross of Massachusetts.

Seasoned swimmers, too, often “don’t realize that the water temperature is much colder than the air temperature, because it hasn’t had a chance to warm up yet,” Doliber added. “Hypothermia hits pretty quick, especially in lakes, rivers, and ponds, so your muscles cramp up and you get disoriented.”

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Dangerous conditions underscore a need for broader awareness of the risks of swimming, from dangerous currents to sudden drop-offs, and the proper way to help someone in distress.

“You don’t jump — you throw, toss, or extend,” Doliber said. “You find a piece of rope, you find a stick, you find something they can grab onto.”

Even confident swimmers who aren’t lifeguard-certified shouldn’t dive in, he said, because “that person can pull you under.”

“It is common to see people die in pairs,” Hall said. “It’s tragic because you had one person trying to save the life of another, and it ends up costing them their own life as well.”

Hall and others also pointed to the lifeguard shortage many communities have faced since pools and beaches reopened on Memorial Day. Governor Charlie Baker said he believed state-run pools and public parks “are fully staffed” this summer, but urged swimmers to be careful at public watering holes, particularly those without lifeguards.

Safety specialists noted, however, that many of the recent drownings have occurred in waters that lifeguards don’t normally patrol.

“It just really speaks to the need to teach children to understand their abilities, understand water temperature, understand what the effect of air temperature is,” Hall said.

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Meanwhile, the demand for swim lessons is greater than most YMCAs can accommodate, despite their efforts to find lifeguards willing to teach.

“Our goal is to employ as many young people this summer as possible,” said James Morton, president of the YMCA of Greater Boston. Many teenagers who have worked as lifeguards in past summers have not returned, which Morton attributes to an uncertainty about job availability at this stage of the pandemic.

“Last year, we employed about 440 teenagers in Greater Boston,” compared to a “ballpark of 725 kids, as we did in 2019,” he said. “And I think kids anticipated that that was also going to be the case this summer.”

Nationally, the number of lifeguards certified between January and April plummeted from nearly 100,000 in 2019 to just over 51,000 last year, according to the Red Cross. This year, they were up to 83,000.

“It’s like a large machine that’s been shut down, and we have to get it back up and running again,” Doliber said. “It isn’t happening as fast as all of us would like to meet the demand and the need that is there, but we’re doing everything we can.”

Both swim lessons and lifeguard training are available at YMCAs in communities of color, he said. Financial support is in place at every center in Boston to ensure that everyone has access to swim lessons, regardless of ability to pay, Morton said.

State Representative Liz Malia, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, said that the state needs to allocate more money to the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which runs the state’s parks and pools. The agency’s $4.6 million administrative budget this fiscal year is slightly less than it was three years ago. The House and Senate expect to begin budget negotiations soon for the fiscal year starting in July.

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Malia said she recently drove by Houghton’s Pond in Milton, a popular swimming spot where DCR staffs lifeguards every day in July and August. In May, a 39-year-old father from Quincy drowned there when he went into the water to retrieve a soccer ball.

“They need more lifeguards, they need better facilities, and they need the tools to take care of the parkland that we do have,” Malia said.

Doliber stressed that no one person or organization was at fault for the recent drownings, but called the combination of factors — hot weather, cold water, eager swimmers, and an absence of thorough education — “a recipe for these really awful outcomes.”

“My hope would be that as the weather gets warmer and some bodies of water warm up, and as people … are warning people and informing people,” he said, “we will see less drownings because people will be more aware.”

To find a water safety training provider in your area, click here. To sign up for swim lessons with the YMCA of Greater Boston, click here.

Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this story.


Ivy Scott can be reached at ivy.scott@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @itsivyscott.