Scott Jolley is gratified visitors to some of the lakes and rivers in the Carolinas use Duke Energy’s free life jacket loan program.
People who forgot their life jackets can enjoy their day on the water safely instead of having to make another trip or, worse, not wearing a life jacket at all.
“We have a high focus on safety,” said Jolley, a Duke Energy project manager. “Life jacket loaner boards go along with our relationship with our customers and the folks who use our lakes and rivers.”
Duke Energy manages 125 access areas on lakes and rivers in the Carolinas where its power plants are located.
Water safety and land management have become more important because more people are visiting since the COVID-19 pandemic started last year.
“All natural spaces are being inundated,” said project manager Jennifer Bennett. “We’re asking people to please be extra safe, extra cautious, extra courteous in this time of increased use.”
Putting on a life jacket while boating, canoeing, kayaking, paddle boarding or swimming can mean the difference between life and death, said Sgt. Matthew Figaro with the Lake Patrol Division of the Cornelius (N.C.) Police Department.
Life jackets must be worn by children under age 13 In North Carolina and 12 in South Carolina. This means putting the jacket on before the vessel is underway – moving or drifting. “It’s chaotic out there,” Figaro said. “We just can’t have kids without life jackets.”
Organizations such as Boat U.S. Foundation, Lake Gaston Water Safety Council and the Sea Tow Foundation sponsor life jacket loaner programs throughout the United States. Duke Energy’s first life jacket loaner board in the Carolinas was built on Lake Keowee, S.C., in 2012.
They are easy to use: Visitors grab a life jacket off the board at the kiosk in the recreation area and return it at the end of the day.
The program has expanded to 25 boards. Each has the same message in English and Spanish: “People Don’t Float.”
Duke Energy provides the land and signs and works with organizations such as the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, homeowners associations and pediatric doctors’ offices.
Greenville, S.C., resident Craig Keese started the program in Missouri after his son and grandson drowned in a boating accident there. Neither was wearing a life jacket. Keese’s mission is to eliminate further tragedies, Jolley said.
Although Duke Energy doesn’t keep track of how often the life jackets are borrowed, the notes Jolley receives from visitors as well as his observations give him the satisfaction that the program is a success.
“We installed one and put the life jackets on the board,” Jolley said. “I stood on the top of the hill and within 10 minutes of putting the life jackets on the board, I had three kids go by, pick them up and get in the water. That made me feel real good.”
Stay safe on the water
- Wear a life jacket. Under N.C. law, children under 13 must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket. Adults and children over 13 who can’t swim should wear a life jacket also. South Carolina law requires children under 12 years of age to wear a life jacket.
- Take turns being the spotter. Plan for someone to stay on the boat, shore or dock to watch for any problems. A throw cushion is mandatory equipment for boats and may be used for swimmers in trouble.
- Swim in designated areas with a buddy. Rocks and other underwater hazards can be tricky when you swim outside a marked swimming area. Always swim with a friend and let others know your location.
- Watch for changes in the weather. Although you may have checked the weather before your outing, summer storms can come up suddenly.
- Be aware of lake water levels, temperature and currents. These can change quickly, making swimming more difficult and unsafe. Boats should follow the danger markers to navigate around shoals and rocks.
- Pay attention to fatigue, health conditions and alcohol use in members of your group. Exhaustion, impaired skills and illness can affect your ability to swim safely. Sun, weather and motion can elevate intoxication.
- Drink water to stay hydrated. The sun can reduce your energy and cause cramping, affecting your fun and, more importantly, your safety.
- Clean up your trash. Garbage left behind can end up in the lake where you’re swimming, be unsightly and attract critters. Consider bringing your trash home with you.