Hero on the water
Officer rescues 15 people from sinking boat on Lake Piru, urges safety practices
By Chris O'Neal 07/31/2014
“I looked out on the lake and saw something that didn’t look right,” said Kurt White, lead park services officer with the United Water Conservation District. “I didn’t know what it was.”
On June 15, White spotted an overloaded boat taking on water, sinking quickly. Without hesitation, White took to the harbor, where he and Mark Zavala, a concessionaire at the lake, pulled the boaters from the water and onto White’s boat.
For his heroics, both White and Zavala received high honors last week from the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, who recognized his lifesaving actions.
The rescue, however, shines a light on the growing concern of a lack of safety training for boaters who cruise the waters of Lake Piru and other lakes in the county.
“Overloading and operator inexperience were the biggest things,” said White of what caused the vessel to sink. After turning northward, the boat was inundated with waves and took on water.
In California, a boater is not required to take a safety course before entering the water with a boat. While the United Water officers can cite boaters for safety violations, having a party on a boat with alcohol is not prohibited as long as the driver is not intoxicated. The driver of the boat that sank on Lake Piru was well within the legal blood-alcohol limit.
After budget cuts hit the department, the number of patrol officers dropped from five to two, leaving White and Senior Park Services Officer Clayton Strahan to patrol the more than a mile-long stretch of Lake Piru.
While Lake Piru at capacity is 4.5 miles long and over a mile wide, it has fallen by nearly 80 percent due to the ongoing drought.
Strahan says that vessels being overloaded are not uncommon and that drinking on the lake is a common boating pastime.
“It’s not something that is infrequent,” says Strahan. “We have something like this several times a year.”
Strahan says that the United Water District has its own rules that mirror California boating laws, which regulate boating safety activities, including the appropriate age to wear life jackets (anyone over 13 is not required to wear a life jacket, but Strahan strongly suggests that they do) and max weight requirements for boats.
“Those are the kinds of things we are looking to educate the public about,” says Strahan. “We also encourage all boaters to take their boat for a Coast Guard auxiliary safety inspection, and they’ll do that for free.”
Strahan says that children should always have life jackets, even if they know how to swim, and that boaters should educate themselves on regulations before going on the water.
White says that rescuing the boaters was just a part of his job.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” says White, whose advice to those looking for some fun on the water is simple. “Wear a life jacket. Try to get educated through a class. Whatever you do, educate yourself in what you get involved in.”