In April, a 24-year-old man jumped into the chilly waters off Crane Beach in Ipswich aiming to swim about a mile to Plum Island. His lifeless body was found hours later. In May, two young cousins skipping stones across Waldo Lake in Brockton slipped in and drowned despite frantic rescue attempts by their horrified family. In June, a 29-year-old landscaper dove into Scituate Harbor to cool off after a sweltering day, and didn’t resurface.
Shimmering pools, lakes, and miles of Massachusetts shoreline lure hordes of people to the water every year, but a surge of recent drownings this summer has raised alarms about safety. Authorities have been on alert about the pace of drownings since May, when reported water deaths doubled compared to last year. And those concerns have been magnified by an acute shortage of lifeguards.
The Globe reviewed several dozen drownings and other water-related incidents this year in which people survived and found common threads; the vast majority of these incidents have involved young men, often people of color. Many could not swim or were described by family and friends as not strong swimmers. Their median age was 19.
But the water poses an equal opportunity danger. The drownings claimed lives from people ages 1 to 95, and from several different races and ethnicities, the data show. Nearly all the fatalities and close calls for which the Globe could find complete information were in waters not lifeguarded.
Some of those who ran into serious trouble or died were known as strong swimmers. But they took risks, swimming far from shore or alone, boating without a life jacket in rough seas, or boogie boarding amid rip tides. Confidence too often outran caution.
“We have all the assets to help people if something goes wrong. But it doesn’t always prevent an accident no matter how many assets we have,” said Lieutenant Detective Paul Norton of the Scituate Police Department, which has responded to at least two drownings this year.
Too often, Norton said, people ignore safety rules and are injured or die as a result. “No jumping” signs are posted on the town’s bridges, site of one of this year’s drownings. The spans are regularly patrolled by police, but remain a lure for young thrill-seekers looking to dive into the water.
“Within an eighth of a mile away from any of these bridges there are public beaches with lifeguards,” Norton said.
The Scituate department also responded to a fatal boating accident in May, in which a 77-year-old woman — with no life jacket — was thrown overboard in rough seas.
“I am astonished about this when something so simple as a life jacket could have saved her,” said Adam Warner, son of Lucy Warner of Colorado, who died in the accident.
“I keep remembering the life jacket that saved my brother’s life when we went white-water rafting when we were kids,” Warner said. “And the fact that she always made me wear a life jacket.”
There is no central database in Massachusetts or nationally for drownings or near-fatalities. The state health department tracks raw numbers, but no demographic or other information. The department reported 47 drownings and near-fatalities this year from January through May, with 18 of them in May alone, more than double the total from the same month last year.
‘We have all the assets to help people if something goes wrong. But it doesn’t always prevent an accident no matter how many assets we have’
Lieutenant Detective Paul Norton of the Scituate Police Department
Seeking more insights, the Globe created a database of incidents with information compiled from State Police files, obituaries, GoFundMe sites, news reports, and interviews with local police, family, and friends.
The Globe identified 54 drownings and near-fatalities from January through early July. Nineteen of these incidents involved people who fell through ice in winter, slid into the water in cars, or police believe were suicides.
Of the remaining 35 analyzed by the Globe, 26 involved male victims and nine, females. People of color were significantly more at risk; they comprised nearly 60 percent of drownings and near-fatalities, yet they account for less than a third of the state’s population.
Lifeguards were present in only one of the 21 cases in which lifeguarding status could be determined. And of the seven nonfatal water incidents during the spring and summer, three involved toddlers wandering off and falling into pools.
Many of the fatal accidents unfolded rapidly in seemingly serene settings — but occurred outside of lifeguarding hours or in places posted as “No Swimming.” That was the case on May 15 in Brockton, when cousins Rafael Andrade Nunes, 13, and Tiago Depina, 12, were skipping stones in shallow water on a ramp at Waldo Lake in D.W. Field Park. One boy fell into a steep drop-off at the end of the ramp, and when his cousin tried to rescue him, he too disappeared. Neither knew how to swim and both died.
“The way it’s designed, it’s a ramp — a dam on one side, a ramp on the other, like you would walk down the ramp to get into the water,” said Michael Nunes, whose cousins are the aunts of the two boys. “People don’t realize how dangerous it is.”
He said there was just one sign that said “No Swimming,” and it was only in English, which may present a language barrier for some residents of Brockton, a city with many immigrants. (Since the drownings, the city has installed signs in four languages: English, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, and Spanish. But Nunes said the signs should have diagrams, not just words.)
A dozen days later up the road at Houghton’s Pond in Milton, 39-year-old Brahim Ouassem was playing with his son around 6:30 p.m. and dashed into the water to retrieve a ball. Police say he ventured past the rope that marks the swimming area, disappeared underwater, and didn’t resurface. The pond’s bottom drops off sharply beyond the rope, although swimmers unfamiliar with the pond may not realize that. His body was recovered about an hour later.
“He was not a good swimmer, but he could swim,” said Ghali Mkabri, a friend of Ouassem’s. “We were all shocked. [Ouassem] . . . was not someone to take risks.”
A year earlier, an eerily similar incident unfolded at the pond when an Everett man nearly drowned while swimming out beyond the ropes, also to retrieve a ball. Houghton’s Pond has lifeguards, but Ouassem’s drowning and the near-fatal incident last year occurred before the season started.
Water safety specialists say lifeguards serve as much to head off tragedies as they do to rescue those in trouble. Like a lighthouse that alerts boats to rocks and shoals, the guards warn swimmers who have ventured out too far or are engaging in other risky behavior.
“Our goal is to be ahead of the game because once someone is under [water] it’s a very difficult situation,” said Tom Gill, spokesman for the United States Lifesaving Association, which represents beach and open water lifeguards.
In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, association figures show its member lifeguards conducted 71,034 rescues, but also took more than 8.8 million preventative actions to ward off problems.
The pandemic exacerbated a national lifeguard shortage by curtailing sessions to certify more guards, and that has water safety experts on edge this summer. Compounding the lack of trained guards are longstanding concerns about lack of access to swimming lessons, often in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
Lack of access can translate to higher drowning death rates among some racial and ethnic groups. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, reports drowning death rates for Black people are 1.5 higher than the rates for white people. Disparities are highest among Black children ages 5 to 14.
But even experienced swimmers can misjudge water conditions and their own abilities, with harrowing consequences. That’s what happened to Josh Borgerding on Memorial Day weekend while boogie boarding in rough waters off Nauset Light Beach in Eastham.
“The waves were really crazy, and I had a lot of apprehension about going out because it was really cold and stormy,” he said.
The 30-year-old New Yorker considers himself a strong swimmer, but was unfamiliar with Nauset, which did not have a lifeguard on duty at the time. So he trusted a local friend who was boarding with him. Within minutes Borgerding found himself sucked into a riptide.
“I was wearing a wetsuit, but I could feel my muscles getting exhausted,” he said. “I would get to the point where I could touch sand, and then the tide would just drag me out.”
Finally, his exhausted friend made it safely to shore and yelled for Borgerding’s fiancee to call 911. Borgerding clung to his boogie board until local police and park rangers arrived and threw out a buoy for him to grab and be pulled to safety.
“When you’re at a new beach, it’s so difficult to work out what’s normal and abnormal in the underwater terrain, particularly if the swell is big,” he said. “The conditions were insane, we shouldn’t have gone out, so I take responsibility for that.”