Life jackets on White Rock waters should become more common following tragedy

Joe Cunningham, a 57-year-old Tyler TX man, drowned despite being a seasoned paddler. Facebook photo.

Before rescuers even pulled the body from the water, readers of the Advocate, Morning News, WFAA, and so on flooded the comments sections with exasperation over the victim and his companions’ lack of personal floatation devices or life jackets.

Some of the comments were callous, as commenters can be, but the comments on our site were mostly both sensitive and sensible:

“It scares me silly to personally see way too many people paddling on White Rock, sans personal floatation devices. They are all just like this poor fellow foolishly thinking that such a tragedy only happens to someone else. Statistics show that close to 80% of all paddling-related drownings would have been prevented if the victims had only worn their PFDs. My thoughts and prayers go out to Mr. Cunningham’s family who are sadly suffering through an experience that could have been eliminated with a little common sense,” writes a reader who is experienced on White Rock waters.

But here’s the thing: sense about personal floatation devices on White Rock Lake isn’t common. I should know because, I’ll admit, I wouldn’t worry about getting on that lake in a boat or a kayak or even on a paddleboard, were I experienced, sans life jacket. At least not before now.

Kayaker Ned Flotmann wears a life vest.

The tragic accidents last weekend — one at White Rock and one at Lewisville Lake — indeed could have been avoided had the victims been wearing a life jacket, but I don’t know that many White Rock Lake users think to wear one. Even those of us who generally exhibit good sense.

No one questioned the fact that kayakers Emily Loerke and Emily McKeaigg don’t wear life vests.

Last year, we did a story about some folks who were training at White Rock Lake for an upcoming kayak race. The older man wore a life preserver in training, but the two young women we interviewed did not have on life preservers and no one mentioned a word about it. It was very different when we ran a photo of a helmet-less cyclist; we received dozens of emails and calls about that. (Of course the difference is that an adult is not required to wear a life preserver on a boat and helmets are required).

It does not appear that the junior crew team wears life vests either.

During those interviews, I got on the water in an outrigger and I honestly had to look at a photo in order remember if I had a life jacket on or not (I did, only because Ned Flottman put me in one before letting me use his boat).

I wouldn’t think of letting myself or my kids on Lake Ray Hubbard without a life jacket, but for some reason White Rock Lake seems relatively benign.

The model in the White Rock Paddle Groupon ad goes for the no-life vest look. Yes, she has great abs. I’d want to show them off too, but is it worth the risk?

I am quite sure Joe Cunningham, the man who drowned on White Rock last weekend, didn’t think twice about his safety. The 57-year-old, from the looks of his Facebook page, was a seasoned paddleboarder. His sister comments that “he died doing what he loved,” and even posted an old video of Cunningham paddling. Surely he was a swimmer. He was enjoying a sunny day on the lake with his family. He doesn’t seem like the type of guy who would knowingly put his adult son and wife, who were with him, in danger. He likely didn’t struggle over a decision concerning life jackets; he’d probably done this a hundred times.

But who knows what happened when he fell. Maybe he hit his head. Maybe panic over his son and wife who also fell in the water caused him to lose consciousness. Yet had he been wearing a vest, he’d have buoyed to the surface and lived.

Amy Ebert and Andeline Koh, the real-life White Rock Paddle girls, do wear life jackets and require customers to do the same.

We can only guess, but I can say with certainty that the story of Joe Cunningham, whose friends call him Joe Ham, will stick with me. You can now consider me a proponent of life jackets for anyone participating in water sports at White Rock.

Maybe, hopefully, I won’t be the only one, and sense about this oft-overlooked safety measure will become much more common.


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  • surfertom

    When I read the cutline for the photo above I felt like it was necessary to comment on the term “seasoned paddler.”  I have been around a lot of paddleboarders for the last five years, mostly ocean paddlers, and have noticed that these guys differ from lake paddlers because they have more experience with different types of weather and water conditions.  They know what to do when weather changes quickly.  Lake paddlers, on the other hand, are usually calm water paddlers, and have little experience with high wind and chop on the water and certainly not wave/rough conditions. I also think that swimming experience, especially in rough conditions, is probably limited.  Common sense needs to be applied a bit more when anyone goes out on a lake like White Rock, which can go from placid to rough with rising winds, and life jackets as well as leashes that attach the board to the paddler  should be used.    

  • http://twitter.com/chughesbabb chughesbabb

    Bob nothing you are saying is wrong, but I also bet the popularity of paddleboarding (not to mention the other probably-less-dangerous water sports) has at least doubled in the last year or two, and 2 of the last 2 issues of Outside magazine featured paddleboarders on the cover, so expect it to grow. Your comment sort of reflects my point — nobody really thinks of White Rock as the type of lake you can drown in, provided you aren’t drunk or doing something dumb. I don’t think it can hurt, as more and more folks take to the WR waters, to raise a little awareness about safety. I’m not talking about mandating life vests or anything like that, but I do think this accident should serve as a wake-up call. 

  • Bob Loblaw

    I’ve lived next to White Rock lake for nearly 25 years.  It seems like we average about one drowning per year (I think there have been two this year).  You can’t always tell from the News reports what happened.  But it’s usually a “swimmer” with the implication that alcohol was involved (all the more so since swimming isn’t allowed).  Others sound a little like suicides.  I remember one person wandered into the lake from a nearby retirement home.  Someone can correct me, but I don’t think that I remember any boater, kayaker, or rower drowning, ever.  So it’s sad, but there isn’t any need to over-react, it’s not an epidemic.