lifejackets-mustbeworn DC
Signs at the Dingman's Ferry Delaware River access alert river users that the river is high and dangerous after recent heavy rains. PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

Delaware River drownings: Persistent and preventable

| July 29, 2021

Here’s a terrifying prediction about drownings in the two National Park units on the Delaware River:

According to the data: Our next victim will be a 27-year-old male from NJ. He will drown while swimming in the river without a lifejacket on a Saturday afternoon in July or August. It will happen between 3 and 6 pm. It will likely happen near Tocks Island or at Karamac. 

This terrible forecast is from the National Park Service. Its experts have combed through the files it has on the 74 drownings they have recorded since 1980 in the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River as well as 101 in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area: a grim total of 175.

This dire prediction is the result.

The key phrase in their prediction is “without a life jacket.” There are signs urging people to wear a life jacket all over the national park units, especially in areas that might tempt a swimmer.


As Ingrid Peterec, Chief of Interpretation for the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River puts it, people drive for a couple of hours to get to the area. They pull up where it looks like a great place to picnic and soon, someone (usually a male between the ages of 18 and 30) gets the idea that it might be nice to dive into what are the tempting waters of the Delaware River.

Maybe they even see the signs about wearing a life jacket (“Wear it!”), but most places in either park are far from where you might buy a life jacket.

Even though there are beaches where loaner life jackets are on hand — in the 74 miles miles of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River and the 40 miles of the DWGNRA — there are lots of places by the river where people might try their luck.

Too often, it’s bad luck.

The river is more dangerous than it looks, especially after a heavy rain when you can’t see the rocks and other debris that is carried downstream.

And the currents and eddies are unpredictable, noted Kathleen Sandt, public affairs specialist with the DWGNRA. Just because you might be a strong swimmer in a lake or pool or even the ocean, the river presents a whole different challenge.

Confusingly, the current beneath the surface runs faster than the surface water. Also, the river bed is uneven. Trying to stand up is difficult with water whipping you around, and the surface beneath your feet is treacherous with rocks and tree limbs.

Take, for example, one of the recent drownings. A person decided to wade without a life jacket.

When he started out, the river was to his knees. Moments later he was under water.

He drowned.

“When you’re walking in the river, you could just be wading up to your knees. Take three steps and you’re over your head,” said Peterec. Adding to the problem is that life jackets need to be rather snug. The term the lifesaving people use is “properly fitted.”

Just having a loose life jacket on does you no good since if you’re in the water the life jacket will lift up and you’ll sink.

On a hot day, who wants to bother with a snug-fitting life jacket?


“You have to make it snug,” Peterec said. “For people not familiar with it, the best way is from top to bottom, like a shirt. If it’s not cinched tight enough, it will float and your head will be inside it.”

The same thing can happen if it’s not buckled. And make sure you’re wearing the right size: Adults need adult sizes, not children’s. And vice versa.

“These deaths are 100% preventable,” said Peterec, you can hear a touch of frustration as well as sadness in her voice.

And it’s all so arbitrary. Last year, with the number of people visiting the park units way up, there were no drownings in the Upper Delaware but five in the DWGNRA. This year those figures are reversed. And these figures are only people who drowned in one of the National Park units — there is lots more of the Delaware and lives are claimed  farther downriver as well, so these precautions are applicable to the whole river.

The National Park Service has taken out about 40 public service announcements in the Philadelphia and New York City metropolitan areas. Sandt said more than 75% of drowning victims at DWGNRA hail from the greater NYC metropolitan area.

In addition, both parks are targeting those areas where most of the drownings happen with its own patrols.  DWG has a cadre of River Ambassadors (here’s a link if you’re interested) and it works with volunteer organizations like the National Canoe Safety Patrol, especially on weekends.

“Just because you know the river outside your front door, doesn’t mean you know the river up here,” said Sandt.

To emphasize that point, in early July, a 32-year-old man from Bucks County, Pa., drowned near Bull’s Island Recreation Area in New Jersey. His death is not part of the five recorded by the national parks units.

The river changes day to day, and as Sandt said: “The river is different wherever you are.”

She added, “Before you come, that’s when we need to get the message out.”

To that end, pass this story along to anyone coming anywhere on the Delaware and remind people about the need for safety.

Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire has been a journalist for 30 years in New York and Connecticut. She started in weekly newspapers and moved to full-time work in dailies 25 years ago. She knows about the tectonic changes in journalism firsthand, having been part of what was euphemistically called a "reduction in force" six years ago. Now she's working to find new ways to "do" the news as an independent online publisher of news about the Delaware River, its watershed and its people.

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