Rare is the occasion to turn a seasoned lawman into a high school cheerleader.
But when it’s Sgt. Wayne Richardson, his hometown Nation Ford High School and a life jacket competition against other York County schools, it’s a perfect storm for enthusiasm. Sgt. Brent Mabry, who spends eight hours a day with Richardson on the York County Sheriff’s Office lake patrol unit, was the least surprised person at the school Friday morning.
“Every time it’s Nation Ford, it’s ‘my kids, my kids, my kids,’” Mabry said of his colleague.
Richardson told students to go after two-time competition champion Clover High School and work toward getting Nation Ford on the trophy plating. Not just for school pride. But to raise awareness and keep him from having to find one of his kids at the bottom of Lake Wylie.
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“I don’t ever want to have to come down and get one of you,” Richardson said.
For the second straight year, a life jacket awareness event partnering the Lake Wylie Marine Commission and sheriff’s office doubled in size. The first year it was more campaign than competition.
“The first year Clover did it,” said Blanche Bryant with the marine commission. “Last year, Clover and Fort Mill (High School) did it. It looks like I’m probably going to have four schools this year.”
About 50 Clover students turned out with life jackets and pledged to wear them leading into and throughout that first summer on Lake Wylie. Last year, more than 100 Clover students participated, beating first time participant Fort Mill.
This year, Nation Ford and Northwestern High School in Rock Hill join Clover and Fort Mill. Each school has a day to gather as many students wearing life jackets as possible. The last comes May 19 at Fort Mill, after which a winner will be announced.
Mabry said Clover “set the bar pretty high” last year, but the 83 students at Nation Ford is so far a record for a first-year participant. It’s also more people than lake enforcement officers typically get at a time to talk boating safety rules and reasoning. Students learned, for instance, they need both a life jacket and a whistle when using a canoe, kayak or paddleboard. No whistle can mean a wallet $250 lighter.
“It can get expensive,” Richardson said about the fines for violating lake rules. “We’re not worried about the expensive part. We’re worried about your safety.”
Officers told students Friday they have all the affection in the world for them, but if lake patrol comes up on a paddler without a life jacket there are rules they must enforce.
Call it tough love.
“We will take you to shore if we find you,” Mabry said. “Your day has ended as of that point.”
Officers deal with everything from no life jackets to only kid-sized ones, to people thinking they are too good a swimmer to need them and others who don’t want the tan lines. Officers hope students never find themselves in dire need of a life jacket, but they know the job too well. Great swimmers doing nothing wrong can be knocked unconscious by another boater. Then, a life jacket can mean life or death.
“A lot of people don’t look at it that way,” Richardson said.
Bryant said the only part missing from the growing safety awareness effort is something to teach adults, too. Far too many end up in dangerous scenarios in the water. Her goal with the marine commission and law enforcement is to start with young people and have them teach others, the way seat belt safety grew as younger generations embraced it.
Area lakes and rivers, she said, are too concerning not to start somewhere.
“I live on Lake Wylie,” Bryant said. “I see the boats flying by. I understand the river, and I want you to understand the river. It’s not forgiving.”