CHATHAM — For 17-year-old Caroline Verrilli, a Chatham lifeguard who sometimes works at the Oyster Pond, it's fun to gaze out on people waterskiing or tubing far beyond the swim area.
“But when they fall off, I worry,” she said.
And Verrilli, whose family summers on Cape Cod each year, has good reason to worry. Not only could she be pressed into service for such an emergency, but she knows what it feels like to be alone in the water in an area frequented by boats.
“This is extra important to me,” she said. When Verrilli was 10, she was tubing in Long Island Sound when she went in the water, which is usually the fun part, she quipped. But before her tow boat could circle around to pick her up, another motorboat was racing toward her.
“He didn't see me,” Verrilli said. Her father, Ralph, remembers looking back and seeing his daughter in danger, but being unable to help. Eventually, the boater caught sight of the head in the water and veered away.
“But it was close,” he said.
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Tubing and waterskiing accidents are not uncommon, even in local waters. One person being towed behind a boat in Crow's Pond several years ago collided with a moored boat, sustaining serious injuries. Another boater in Pleasant Bay suffered traumatic injuries to her leg after she went overboard and then made contact with the boat's propeller.
“We've had a few significant injuries,” Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith said.
In fact, the Verrilli family is friends with the family of the late Emily Fedorko of Greenwich, Conn., who died in a tubing accident in Long Island Sound two years ago. Her family has launched an aggressive campaign to educate boaters about safety for towed water sports, and successfully lobbied for legislation in Connecticut to prohibit young teens from using boats to tow people on water skis or tubes.
In that tragedy, Fedorko died when she was injured by the propeller being brought back aboard the boat. Verrilli says she knows that tubing is a fun way for teens to spend a summer day, “but sometimes they're not as careful as they should be.” On behalf of the Emily Catherine Fedorko Foundation, Verrilli spent part of her day Friday speaking with boaters at Outermost Harbor Marine, stressing the need to turn off outboard motors – rather than just disengaging them – when bringing a swimmer aboard.
“It seems like common sense,” but many boaters don't do this, Verrilli said.
Smith said the best practice when taking a swimmer aboard a boat is to maneuver about 30 feet from the person in the water and then turn off the engine “and have the person swim to the boat. That way, you don't have any propeller issues,” he said.
To keep waterskiiers and tubes away from swimmers and moored boats, Chatham has installed yellow boundary buoys in the center of Oyster Pond. Response so far has been positive, Smith said, and the town may install similar buoys in Crow's Pond next year.