Drowning cases on the Upper Delaware
68 - drownings 1980-2016
2- average a year
95% - males
59% - ages 18-30
52% - when swimming
3 - foot river level

NARROWSBURG, NY - The campaign to encourage wearing of life jackets on the Upper Delaware River continues, in light of the grim statistic of two people drowning every year.

After National Park Service representatives made a presentation on the subject to the Upper Delaware Council (UDC) in April, some UDC members pushed the point that color-coded river level gages on every bridge would help warn boaters. This raised some back and forth about how effective they would be in warning boaters to be wearing life jackets as required, when the river is at a certain height.

Much higher than national

Kevin Reisch, a ranger and Water Safety Program Manager with the Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River, said that observations made indicate that an average of 60 percent of people wear life jackets when having recreation on the river.

That was “pretty good,” he said, when compared to a study that showed nationwide, in 2015, the “wear rate” for all types of boaters was only around 11 percent.

Usage goes as high as 90 percent, however, at times when the river is six feet and higher as measured at the Callicoon and Barryville gauges.

Since 2010, the Park Service has mandated that life jackets be worn no matter what age a person is, when the river reaches or exceeds six feet.

“The new regulation saves lives,” Reisch said. “People don’t drown when wearing life jackets.”
He cautioned that there are other reasons people drown.  It’s also not only people boating, who drown, he added.

Of all the cases of people drowning on the Upper Delaware, however, no one was wearing one.
Since 1980, the year the National Park Service arrived on the Upper Delaware, there have been 68 drowning cases. Some years, they have had no cases. The worst year was 2011, when five people lost their lives here to drowning. That was a year after the Park Service enacted the rule that they must be worn when the river is a certain height.

“2011… not a great year for us,” Reisch he added. “We were labeled one of the 10 most deadly parks in the National Park Service.”

Drowning is a huge problem nationally for the Park Service, Reisch said. From 2017 to 2013, there were 400 drowning incidents at parks, the number one cause of visitor fatalities. Second are motor vehicle accidents.

Why not all the time

The Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River is 73.4 miles in length and is “one of the most paddled stretches of river in the world,” Reisch said.

Reisch said that the problem has not been so much when the river is high.

A Lackawaxen businessman, Dimitri Zaimes, however, urged the Park Service to go further and require everyone to wear a life jacket, no matter how high or low the river may be.

Reisch stated that requiring everyone to wear a jacket on a boat won’t cure everything since 52% of victims were swimmers.

“The Park Director has the authority to make life jacket wear mandator, period,” Zaimes said. He says he requires his people to wear them. “You’re going to save life if you make it mandatory, and it’s not going to hurt business.”

Zaimes owns and operates Two River Junction, a bed and breakfast, restaurant and deli overlooking the confluence of the Lackawaxen River and the Delaware River. They also host river trips.

Data analyzed

Reisch said that they are constantly developing strategies on river safety. The Upper Delaware’s efforts have received attention at the national level of the Park Service, he said. They have tried to take a scientific approach, he said, collecting data and analyzing who is most at risk of drowning, as well as where and when drowning is more likely to happen.

Ingrid Peterec, Chief of Interpretation, discussed the analysis of data collected on drowning cases on the Upper Delaware, from 1980 through 2016. They had an idea of what to expect in many ways, but in others they were taken by surprise, she said.

Here are some highlights:

Most drownings occur in June, July and August, and on Friday, Saturday and Sunday- when more people are visiting the river. Overwhelmingly, 95 percent of the victims are male. Most are young adults: 59% ages 18-30; 28% over 30 and 13% under 18. Drowning by activity, she said, “opened our eyes.” Boating and tubing only accounted for 29% of drownings. Swimming accounted for 52%. Jumping from bridges totaled 5% and other activities made up 14%.
Reisch said in the cases where people drowned while swimming, they were purposely swimming. They were not thrown out of a boat or capsized. Location of drowning incidents tend to be where people spend the day, such as Skinners Falls, Kunkelli Rapids, Colang Rapids, Cedar Rapids, Mongaup Rapids and Butler’s Rift. The average river height was three feet, when people drowned.

Rick Lander, of Lander’s River Trips, commented that he’d like to see the analysis of river height broken down a step further, by temperature. When it is warm out, it’s harder to get compliance.

Conveying message

To strengthen their river safety message, the Park Service on the Upper Delaware consulted with other water-based parks and other agencies to see how the issue has been tackled. A Water Safety Committee was formed. Liveries are represented, as well as the National Canoe Safety Patrol, Upper Delaware Council and The River Reporter.

Park rangers increased river patrols, encouraging use of life jackets. The 100-member National Canoe Safety Patrol helps reinforce the message as well.

Educational efforts, Peterec noted, include a front-and-center message on their web site and a social media campaign, a billboard by Roebling Bridge (donated by Adams Outdoor Advertising) and lawn signs. Messages, including signs, guide books and talks, are given in English and Spanish. Radio stations and liveries are alerted when river height requires jacket use.

They partnered with Safe Boating Council, a national campaign.

The Park Service also expanded their loaner jacket program; jackets are available at river access kiosks. The National Safe Boating Council has donated $1,000, which will provide for loaner jackets from infant size to extra large.

To know more:

For more information on life jacket usage, visit the Park Service web site at:
The Upper Delaware River Hotline also provides a recorded message on river height, air and water temperatures, boating conditions and general river safety information. The message is updated daily during the boating season. Call 1-845-252-7100.