“Mayday. Mayday. Mayday.” These words, derived from the French m’daiez meaning “help me,” are used to call for aid from a vessel, explained instructor Harold Gaertner of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Tuning to the radio hailing frequency, channel 16, attendees in his class dutifully repeated the phrase even though none of them owned a boat.
In fact, none of them even possessed a driver’s license.
That didn’t deter these Tommie Barfield Elementary third graders from learning valuable life skills. Using a marine radio was just one of many safety lessons taught during the Marco Island YMCA Water Wise Program.
All third graders from Tommie Barfield Elementary will participate in Water Wise over a two-week period. Third graders from Manatee Elementary will get their chance from April 28 to 30.
The 14-year old program is a collaboration among the Marco Island YMCA, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 95 and the Marco Island Fire Department. During each session pupils learn five components of water safety including basic first aid, boating safety, personal survival skills, recognizing proper behavior in and beside the water and safe swimming.
“This program has helped so many children I wouldn’t know were to start,” said Dottie Weiner, aquatic director for the Marco Y, when asked what she would consider its greatest benefit.
For Alex Insinger, it has been a life altering experience.
“Last year Alex was so terrified that he came back this year to make sure he had overcome his fear,” said school assistant Kathy Wielgos. As if to prove her point, Alex swam up to the edge of the pool to show her how well he floated on his back. “Now he’s doing terrifically. Something like this is invaluable for kids around here, particularly those without pools.”
Lt. Pam Williams, an EMS representative with the Marco Island Fire Department, watched Capt. Dustin Beatty time a group treading water.
“They do this for one minute to help build endurance,” she explained. “Next they practice survival floating to protect them if they should fall into the water and need to wait for help or if they should get tired while swimming and need a little rest.”
During boat safety training each child called out to the instructors, “Where are your life jackets?” That request gained entry onto an inflatable raft for further instructions on getting in and out of it safely.
However, knowing where the life jackets were was not enough to pass this test. Step two was wearing one, so each pupil received instruction on how to properly secure a life vest.
“It’s surprising how much these kids learn in such a short time,” said Mike Kaya of the U.S. Coast Guard auxiliary. “They pay attention and go home with some important knowledge.”
Each school group was required to supply a volunteer parent supervisor to ensure the children’s safety. Emmanuelle Meurgue’s mother, Lisa, watched and took pictures as her daughter listened to safety instructions.
“New water safety rules are often not well publicized,” said Weiner. “For instance, we now teach that holding one’s breath (for a long period) under water is very dangerous. It causes shallow water blackout that can result in death. Hyperventilation lowers the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood, a stimulant that tells the brain when to breathe. The lower carbon dioxide level fools the brain into believing it doesn’t need to breathe. Then the swimmer passes out underwater.”
All activity stations reinforced safety procedures and helped pupils gain added confidence around, in and on the water.
“I love teaching children,” said Ray Laturini of the Fire Department. “Surviving in the water is just one step in learning how to survive any emergency.”
The intense hour-and-a-half session gave way to an opportunity for free swimming time. Activities concluded with certificates for participants and fresh homemade cookies, a YMCA poolside signature treat.