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State Urges Caution In River, Ocean Swimming After Rash Of Drownings

Annie Ropeik

State officials are urging swimmers to be careful in unsupervised areas after a series of river drownings, amid pool closures and beach restrictions.

At a press conference on the Merrimack River in Concord Friday morning, Fish & Game Col. Kevin Jordan said New Hampshire averages 13 to 15 deadly drownings a year.

But he says six fatal incidents so far in 2020 put the state ahead of what's normal at this time.

“We’re only in the first week of August, so I’m concerned,” Jordan says. “August is a hot month, it’s a popular month where people go out, so I’m worried that we’re up higher than we should be.”

Jordan thinks the recent trend could be because more people are swimming at boat launches and on unfamiliar parts of rivers due to pandemic-related closures and boredom.

“We’re trying to get people to think about it a little bit before you go in the river,” Jordan says. “Because when you make that call and someone’s in trouble, a lot of times we can’t get there soon enough.”

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR
The Merrimack River appeared calm during officials' press conference, but they say swimmers should assume its current and depth can change without warning.

Officials say people shouldn't swim alone or while intoxicated, and shouldn’t assume the river will be consistently swimmable from day to day or spot to spot.

“One moment, you can be in the river, it’s shallow, it’s not moving fast,” said Derek Kelleher, a battalion chief with the Concord Fire Department. “The very next step you take, it can be over your head and a strong current.”

This summer has also seen more ocean rescues at the state’s Seacoast beaches than in recent memory.

State Beach Patrol Chief Patrick Murphy says he and his lifeguards have conducted 467 rescues since June, compared to the most recent record of 375 rescues in 2017.

He says the beaches have been crowded, and the rip currents happen to be especially strong this summer.

No one has died at the beach this year. But Murphy says they did conduct 84 rescues in one day at Hampton Beach recently. He says people should heed lifeguards’ warnings, swim in pairs or groups, and keep an eye on their kids while they’re in the ocean.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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