Swimmers: The “pedestrians” of open water

Esther Fujimoto was killed at Pineview Reservoir, almost a year ago, when boaters ran over her and fled, even after realizing she was seriously hurt.  A good samaritan paddled his canoe over to Ester and held her head above water as she died.

I see a lot of ignorant comments under online news articles, such as the following:  “These guys have egg on their face, the state has a new law, and the smart lady with absolutely no common sense lost with no one to blame but her for pushing her luck.”  Was Esther was pushing her luck by swimming in a body of water where there were boats?

There is a serious misunderstanding of what our public water resources are for. There is a common theme in news comments that would tell those of us who swim, that open water is for fish and boats.  Those of us who swim in open water take a lot of flack for being “reckless” and “foolish.”

However, I think it’s instructive to compare open water swimmers to sidewalk or side-of-the-road pedestrians.  If a drunk or negligent driver runs up on the sidewalk and runs over someone who is walking, who is at fault?  Or, similarly, if a bicyclist is riding on the right hand side of the road, with traffic, and gets hit by a car that isn’t paying attention, do we blame the cyclist?  (Sadly, some people actually do blame the cyclist.)

The reason I use the previous examples, is because there is some doubt out there, as to the soberness of the driver of the boat, who ran over Esther.

But let’s give this driver the benefit of the doubt, for a minute.  Let’s say he wasn’t drunk or disabled, was paying reasonable attention, when he ran over Esther (this is a stretch, by the way.)  Let’s say Esther was wearing darker clothing (reports are that she was), that she wasn’t marked by any flag or bright-colored device (again, reports are that she wasn’t extremely visible), when she was run over.  At this point, Esther might share some blame here.  It’s incumbent upon us, as open water swimmers, to take reasonable precaution.  We should stick closer to shore, wear bright colors and be aware of our surroundings at all times.

But when I read online commenters say something like, “Why was she swimming in Lake with roaring motor boats flying by. Obviously a dangerous situation…”  The answer is simple:  For the same reason we walk down the road, facing traffic, when cars are flying by at 40 MPH.  She was swimming in open water with traffic in the lake, for the same reason that I jump on my bike and navigate traffic on State Street in Salt Lake City, while fools assume that they have the right of way and squeeze me closer and closer to the sidewalk.  It’s what we do for fun, for exercise, for transport.  We take a reasonable chances and pray that others will obey the law and pay attention.

However, the discussion has become diluted, because while open water swimming has it’s risks, we are talking about a couple of boaters, who, after realizing they’d hit Esther, took off and evaded authorities as she called for help.  This is the important point, here.  Not that her bathing suit was dark, not that it’s stupid to swim in open water (debatable), or that they were or weren’t drunk or high (although this is the next thing to discuss.)  We are talking about a hit and run.  If you run over someone while in your car, on a boat, or even if you tag a pedestrian while you’re flying down a mountain on a bike, it is your responsibility to help the person you’ve hit.  Period.  No snarky, anti-open-water-swimming comment can change that.

Once we have resolved the fact that you can’t just run over someone who is swimming, then take off, we can start to discuss boat laws (The operator of any vessel may not exceed a wakeless speed when within 150 feet of person in or floating on the water.)  Some swimmers and fishermen would like to see an addendum to the Utah Boating Code, stating that you have to be wakeless within 150 feet of any shore, but that’s for another post.

I don’t think that most swimmers would take advantage of this law.  We don’t feel too comfortable swimming “out to sea” without a boat or kayak escort, usually.  You can almost bet that if we’re heading toward the middle of a body of water, we’ll be escorted (hopefully.)  But we do swim along the shores of lakes and oceans- a lot.  It’s close enough for us to get to safety if the weather turns south, or if we cramp up, etc.

Open water swimming is becoming more popular in Utah with groups like Utah Open Water, Swim Without Walls, the London Olympics 10k open water event (which probably should have been listed first), so it’s important that the local boating/fishing/swimming communities have some mutual respect for each other.  When I swim along the shore, I try to swim wide of fisherman.  But, knowing that there are boats, I get back to within 5 meters of shore as soon as I can.

But all of this aside, Esther wasn’t at fault for being left behind when she was struck by a boat.  She might have had better options for clothing (perhaps a Swim Safety Device would have made her more visible), etc., but once she was run over, the three men (almost want to put that word in quotes) should have taken action to try to save her, whether they were drunk or not (and whether their lawyer thinks it would have made a difference.)

Keep on swimming, folks.

From the Utah Boating Code:

(10) The operator of any vessel may not exceed a wakeless speed when within 150 feet of:

(a) Another vessel
(b) A person in or floating on the water
(c) A water skier being towed by another boat
(d) A water skier that had been towed behind the operator’s vessel unless the skier is still
surfing or riding in an upright stance on the wake created by the vessel
(e) A water skier that had been towed behind another vessel and the skier is still surfing or
(f) A shore fisherman
(g) A launching ramp
(h) A dock
(i) A designated swimming area

This entry was posted in Exercise, Swimming and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Swimmers: The “pedestrians” of open water

  1. Pingback: Swimmers: The “pedestrians” of open water | The Bloody Toe « Emerging Trends & Future…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *