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A moment's carelessness can result in drowning tragedy

Larry Woody, Outdoors Writer • Updated Jul 15, 2014 at 10:06 PM

Some readers may notice that during the spring and summer months I devote considerable space in the weekly outdoors notebook to items about boating safety -- from life-jacket reminders to stories about TWRA crackdowns on Boating Under the Influence.

I don't think it can be over-emphasized.

Just one accident -- often resulting from a moment of carelessness -- can cost a life. Four people drowned in Middle Tennessee during the recent July 4 holiday, one in Old Hickory Lake, one in Center Hill Lake and two in the Duck River.

Imagine a parent having to live with the fact that a child fell overboard and drowned because the parent failed to make the youngster wear a life jacket, as required by law. Or having to call the wife of a fishing buddy to inform her that her husband has drowned and authorities are dragging the lake for his body.

Maybe I stress it because it hits close to home. I was almost in that position a few years ago.

My long-time angling accomplice Bob Sherborne and I puttered up to the boat ramp after a day's fishing on Old Hickory Lake. I hopped out to get the truck and back the trailer back while Sherborne waited in the boat.

I was in the parking lot opening the truck door when I glanced back at the lake and saw our boat cruising across the cove -- but no Sherborne. Then, off to the right, I saw him thrashing in the water. He had fallen overboard.

I ran down to the ramp, but I was helpless to assist. Sherborne was about 100 yards out in the deep cove. There was no way I could swim out to him, and even if I could, it would be impossible to keep us both afloat, since we were wearing heavy clothing on the coldĀ  mid-March day.

A moment later a boat from across the cove came racing to the rescue. The fisherman hauled Sherborne aboard, gasping and wheezing and coughing up water, but alive.

If that boat hadn't been close at hand and arrived when it did, Sherborne would have drowned. No question about it. He couldn't have treaded water in the heavy clothing -- he had already gone under once -- and there was no way I could reach him.

He was saved by a miracle. The cove was deserted except for that single boat that rushed over and rescued him.

Later, after Sherborne recovered, he explained what happened: he had puttered out in the cove and twisted around to make some adjustments to the throttle when he accidentally gunned the motor. The boat made a sudden, sharp swerve and Sherborne, caught off-balance, pitched overboard.

It happened in a flash. One second he was in the boat, the next second he was overboard, with the boat quickly motoring away from him. His life jacket was in the boat.

Ever since then, we keep our life jackets on until we reach shore, and Sherborne wears his until the boat is on the trailer and out of the water. He says he has used his mulligan.

Only an absolute miracle saved Sherborne from becoming one of the state's grim boating-fatality statistics. If it can happen to a veteran boater like Sherborne, who had been operating boats for over 30 years without a mishap, it can happen to anybody.

I still cringe when I think about how terrible it would been to have had to call Sherborne's wife Pam and tell her he had drowned. He was lucky -- there's no other word for it. He was saved by a miracle. Others aren't so lucky.

Wear a life jacket.

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