Photo by Benjamin Hager

On an otherwise typical sunny Sunday afternoon, a sudden gust swept over White Rock Lake. Paddleboarder Joe Cunningham, 57, along with his 21-year-old son and his wife, couldn’t stay upright. After falling into the lake, the younger man and his mom swam to shore, but Cunningham struggled, witnesses say, for about five minutes before going under. He didn’t resurface until the next morning, when rescue workers pulled his muscular body from the murky water. It wasn’t long before the comments sections of news sites filled with variations of the same question: “Why wasn’t he wearing a life jacket?” By law, only those under age 13 are required to wear a personal floatation device (PFD), but Mariner Sails staffer Mike Stovall, who frequently gives boat demonstrations at White Rock Lake, feels strongly about their use: “You should be wearing them.” There are dangers in any body of water, including White Rock. He says it would be easy even for a strong swimmer to become snagged in an old fishing line — the lake is full of a hundred years’ worth, he says — or to have something unforeseen happen. “People think, ‘I can swim. That’s not going to happen to me.’ ” Some argue that drownings at White Rock are so rare, there’s no need to panic. “I don’t remember any boater, kayaker or rower drowning, ever. So [the Cunningham case is] sad, but there isn’t any need to over-react,” Advocate reader Bob Loblaw notes. Stovall counters that a surge in the popularity of water sports puts more people at risk than ever before. White Rock Paddle Company, which rents watercraft on White Rock Lake, requires customers to wear PFDs. Stovall adds that it’s important, especially for parents of young children, to check that life jackets fit properly. “When someone buys a boat from us, I say there are two things you are going to need with this: a paddle and a life jacket, which I pray you will use.”

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