The state agencies tasked with responding to drownings on Maine waters are urging people to wear life jackets and use caution while swimming following five water-related deaths that have occurred since Sunday.
The Maine Warden Service recovered the bodies of two young men Tuesday morning who drowned on Messalonskee Lake in Belgrade after they were unable to swim back to the boat they jumped off of. This follows the death of a South Portland man who fell into the Saco River on Sunday.
On Tuesday morning, Maine Marine Patrol recovered the body of a fisherman in the waters off Waldoboro, though a spokesperson was unable to say if the death was a drowning since an autopsy is still pending.
A 13-year-old girl who was hospitalized after being rescued from the Androscoggin River in Greene on Monday died the next day, the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office announced Wednesday.
In addition to the five deaths, another person is suspected to have drowned Wednesday as Maine wardens continue to search for Christopher N. Friedrich, 41, of Springfield, Oregon, who went missing on Swan Lake.
Game wardens located a camp owner who saw a kayak floating upside down in the lake along with personal belongings on Sunday, and they traced the kayak back to Friedrich. His vehicle was located at the Swanville Boat Launch, officials said.
Agencies say the deaths and near drowning demonstrate the need for people to wear life vests when working or recreating on Maine waters.
“With the warm weather, as expected, the Warden Service has been a lot busier with boating [incidents] and in this case drownings. So we continue to encourage people to wear their life jackets,” Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife spokesperson Mark Latti said. “Wear your life jacket and swim in an area that is consistent with your ability.”
None of the people who died over the last three days were wearing life vests, according to the responding agencies.
Properly fitted life vests are a “critically important” piece of gear for people who both work and recreate on Maine’s waters, as they assist in keeping a person’s head above water if they are struggling to swim, Maine Marine Patrol spokesperson Jeff Nichols said.
“We just always encourage a safety first approach for people who spend their working life on the water and for people who recreate on the water. A life jacket is really a critically important piece of gear,” Nichols said.
It is believed that the man who fell in the Saco River did not know how to swim, Latti said, nor did the teenage girl rescued in Greene, according to the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office.
The two young men who drowned in Messalonskee Lake were unable to swim back to the pontoon boat they jumped off after wind blew the boat too far away, Latti said.
He urged that people only swim in areas that are equal with their swimming experience.
”If you’re not an experienced swimmer, don’t head out to the deepest water farthest from shore. Enjoy the water in a shallow area,” he said.
While the weather has been unseasonably warm across the state in recent days, Latti and Nichols said it’s also important to remember that Maine’s waters — especially coastal waters — have not warmed up to peak summer temperatures yet.
The National Weather Service has been issuing “beach hazard” statements on warm weather weekends since mid-April, reminding people that while temperatures might be warm, the ocean waters are still below 60 degrees.
There was also a “special weather” statement issued over the weekend, which is a similar water temperature reminder issued for inland waters. However, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service station in Gray said that since many of Maine’s lakes and ponds are now over 60 degrees they will likely suspend issuing those statements for inland waters for the summer.
Prolonged exposure to cold water can lead to hypothermia and increase the risk of drowning, especially if a person is not wearing a life vest, according to Latti and Nichols.
“Even when you lose the bulk of the ability to utilize your muscles, that life jacket keeps your head afloat and you can still breathe even if you’re unable to move as well,” Latti said.