Against a backdrop of pop music, safety tips and cheers, paddleboarders raced along the water Saturday outside Crawdads on the River, hoping to give a financial boost to the volunteer rescue team that played a critical role last year during one of the region’s worst drowning seasons in recent history.
Roughly 160 people competed in solo and team paddleboard races along the Sacramento River as part of the second annual Paddle 4 DART fundraiser. Proceeds supported the Drowning Accident Rescue Team, a group of water rescue volunteers who respond to about 100 calls per year, supplementing the county’s anti-drowning efforts.
Thirteen people drowned last year in the American and Sacramento rivers, including at least nine in the waters near Tiscornia Beach, the popular recreational spot where the two rivers converge north of downtown.
DART has been more present this year along the American and Sacramento rivers, particularly during weekends and when temperatures exceed 90 degrees. The team uses bullhorns to warn people of the dangers of being near the confluence of the rivers, where roughly five deaths occur each year. DART members also pass out life jackets, respond to accident calls and remove bodies from the river if someone has drowned.
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In 2015, DART began proactive patrolling after the Fourth of July, and continued through Labor Day weekend. This year, DART vice president Leslie Robinson said, the team started over Memorial Day weekend, in response to a request from the county that DART cover the entire summer.
Since beginning a couple weeks ago, DART has conducted a few assists and rescues, but there has not yet been a drowning in Sacramento County.
As DART grew in prominence last year, more residents learned that the team is not a government agency and relies on fundraisers to support its efforts. Those range from selling fireworks to organizing the paddleboard races.
“People don’t know that we’re all volunteers,” Robinson said. “People think that all we do is pull dead bodies out of a river, but we’re so much more than that. And we’re really turning toward a more prevention focus, getting the message out there to please wear your life jackets and be safe on the water so that we aren’t called out.”
Robinson said DART’s annual budget is $65,000, and the team received $10,000 last year from Sacramento County for proactive patrol work on the rivers. DART is working with county officials on an agreement for this year.
At Saturday’s event, which was sponsored by Crawdads, FLOW Stand Up Paddle and Riverbank Marina, some DART members competed. But most stayed on the sidelines to ensure that the racers and spectators stayed safe, constantly reminding people to stay hydrated and wear life jackets.
Last year’s event raised $15,000 to support DART’s operating costs. This year, Robinson noted, DART set a goal of $20,000 in hopes of purchasing a “Sea-Doo” search and rescue watercraft.
“We started doing proactive river control last year, and the Sea-Doo would just be such a great asset to add to what we already have,” Robinson said. “It’s a lot wider than a regular Jet Ski, it gives you a lot of stability, and it can go in 12 inches of water so you can really maneuver in and out of shallow spaces. It’s ideal for flood rescue and for the active patrol that we do, where we go right up to people and pass out life jackets.”
Currently, DART uses boats to do the job, requiring a boat operator and two or three other people to be involved with each call, Robinson said. Given that DART only has 20 “really active members,” Robinson added, it will be much easier for the team to use the Sea-Doo for rescue efforts, since one or two people can jump on the watercraft and quickly travel to the scene.
Robinson said the Sea-Doo will cost more than $20,000 because the team will have to purchase a trailer for the vehicle, insurance and staff training. After last year’s fundraiser, donations trickled in for weeks, she said.
At the fundraiser, volunteers walked around wearing shirts that read, “Wear a life jacket? Survivors do!” Chris Kinley, a director of DART, used his platform as emcee to educate event-goers about water safety. At one point, Kinley played the song “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, informing the audience that the rhythm of the song is “perfect for practicing CPR.”
Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, whose district includes Tiscornia Beach, said he asked DART last year to play a bigger role in river safety.
“Last year most of the drownings unfortunately were by young adult males who think they’re invincible. And lo and behold, they’re no match for two of our largest rivers in the region, that are swift and cold and deep and full of underwater obstacles,” said Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid from happening again. It’s a multifaceted effort. It’s not just our DART team or our park rangers or life jackets or our media campaign, it’s all the above.”
Robinson said that even during Saturday’s fundraiser, DART was patrolling, responding to calls and helping people get back on their boards. She said Saturday’s fundraiser was especially valuable in increasing awareness of DART.
“I actually just learned about DART when I signed up for this race,” said Katie Denny, whose team “3 Chicks and A Dude” won the day’s first relay race. “I didn’t know what it was, so I looked it up. It’s awesome to have an outdoor space and water, and it’s nice to have people who keep it safe for us.”