Concord’s Merrimack River: Placid on the top, deadly beneath the surface

  • A life vest sits attached to the bow of a New Hampshire Fish and Game boat on Friday morning, August 7, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Department of Safety Commisioner Robert Quinn speaks at the press conference for boat safety at the edge of  the Merrimack River on Friday, August 7, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Col. Kevin Jordan of the New Hampshire Fish and Game speaks to the press in front of the Merrimack River near Everett Arena on Friday morning, August, 7, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Col. Kevin Jordan of the New Hampshire Fish and Game speaks as Department of Safety Commisioner Robert Quinn looks on near the Merrimack River on Friday morning, August 7, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Col. Kevin Jordan of N.H. Fish and Game speaks in front of the Merrimack River near Everett Arena on Friday morning. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Col. Kevin Jordan of the New Hampshire Fish and Game speaks as Department of Safety Commisioner Robert Quinn looks on near the Merrimack River on Friday morning, August 7, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  •  Lt. Crystal McLain of N.H. Marine Patrol warned people on Friday about the dangers of swimming in the state’s rivers, such as the Merrimack, where there have been multiple fatalities this summer. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Members of the New Hampshire Fish and Game and local fire officials and police at the morning press conference to warn swimmers on Friday morning, August 7, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The Merrimack River behind the Everett Arena appears calm on Friday morning, August 7, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 8/7/2020 4:18:37 PM

The Merrimack River is a con artist, so beware.

It worked its con Friday morning, behind Everett Arena. Some big voices from the state’s safety community assembled to spread the word about the dangers posed by swimming and boating.

The press conference followed recent tragedies. People have drowned in the Merrimack River this summer and people have been rescued, and authorities figured it was time to warn you about basic safety measures.

Meanwhile, the Merrimack River dominated the background – calm, glass-like, inviting – and one by one, officials from several agencies stood at a lectern and balanced their message: Enjoy New Hampshire’s natural beauty. But don’t fall for the con job. The Merrimack River con job.

Unseen factors lurk below, they said. Currents that you believe you can out-muscle. Changes in the landscape that you assume you can navigate. Dangers for swimmers, even good ones, that don’t seem to faze people but should.

“That’s a mind-set that obviously trips people up,” Lt. Crystal McLain of the New Hampshire Marine Patrol told me after the press conference. “People try to fight the currents and become fatigued. Or maybe the next step is a sheer drop off and they get in over their head. There are a whole variety of issues”

Solutions are logical, even obvious. Nevertheless, officials like McLain and Col. Kevin Jordan of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and about a dozen other individuals felt the need to step forward and remind boaters and swimmers to plan smartly.

Know ahead of time how to direct a 911 dispatcher to your location. Notice a landmark that might help you do that. Also, don’t swim alone. Don’t mix swimming and boating with alcohol and drugs. Research the lakes and rivers known to be tricky and unpredictable. Be aware of rocks and thick branches serving as obstacles that could hold you in place.

“We don’t want families to suffer this absolutely preventable tragedy,” Col. Jordan said during the press conference. “Going out on the boat, please wear flotation devices. These are all steps that people can take and enjoy our waterways and come home safe.”

So, we stop here. The word “preventable” carries a lot of weight. Painful weight. And Jordan singled out the value of wearing a life jacket, the granddaddy of all precautions. You can follow the steps above, but they might not matter without a flotation device.

As McLain told me near the banks of the Merrimack, “I know we’ve investigated some (deaths) over the years that unfortunately were wearing life jackets. But it’s very, very rare compared to those who were not.”

And this nugget of news came over the phone from Maj. Dave Walsh, the assistant chief of law enforcement for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department: “Among divers who made recoveries in the state, I know one diver who recovered a body with a life jacket on in maybe 25 or 30 years, and that man died because he hit his head on the boat.”

Officials confirmed that none of the three drowning victims over the past 10 weeks, all in the Merrimack River, were wearing a life vest. Two people died in the same incident near Pebble Beach in Canterbury, the same spot in which another swimmer had to be rescued five weeks later.

The latest victim, 15-year-old Zach Lacy of Salisbury, drowned last Saturday near Oxbow Pond Road in Canterbury, just north of the Hannah Duston Memorial.

The Monitor’s Alyssa Dandrea interviewed Lacy’s siblings this week in front of Merrimack Valley High School, where Zach was set to begin his junior year.

They said they wanted more public education focused on the dangers of the water, and more routine patrols at Merrimack River beaches.

And, of course, they favored the strict enforcement of a law requiring the use of life jackets on the water, in a state that says live free, but watch yourself.

Current state law does not require anyone to wear a flotation device. Kids younger than 13 must have them within reach when boating away from shore. Each adult must have one, anywhere in the boat.

“I’d much rather be helping my brother pay a $500 fine for not wearing a life vest than be raising money to pay for his funeral,” Zach’s brother, Alex Lacy, told the Monitor. “Something has to change.”

Officials said that one particular life jacket is superior to all others. It provides better support for the swimmer’s head and neck, and prevents any chance of rolling over, which would leave an unconscious person face down in the water.

Other types of life vests might roll an unconscious swimmer over, but as long as you’re awake and wearing one, you stand a much greater chance of surviving than without one.

They’re uncomfortable, you say? Deal with it.

“There’s plenty of room to learn about paying attention to life jackets,” said Capt. Tim Dunleavy of the State Police Marine Patrol. “It’s not just for boaters, and if you bring attention to it, that would be a valid point.”

Dunleavy, Jordan and others noted that rainfall, the season and other subtle factors influence currents. Jordan singled out the effects of alcohol, warning swimmers and boaters to avoid it.

Jordan said six people have drowned in the Granite State this summer, compared to a year-round average of 13 the past five years.

And with the sudden, condensed outburst of tragedy recently, and with swimmers flocking to places like the Merrimack River because the pandemic has forced public pools to remain closed, Jordan worries about the rest of the summer.

He also worries about the con artist. Friday, the con artist was beautiful, postcard-perfect.

“All of us are concerned about this spinning out of control,” Jordan said. “So we’re trying to get people to think about it a little bit before you go into the river.”


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