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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lifeguards Swim Against Drowning Tide

The man not only knew how to swim -- he was once a champion swimmer. After a couple of drinks on the beach, he started bragging that he could swim underneath a moving boat.

To prove his prowess, he waited for a heavy barge to approach, took a deep breath and dove. He never resurfaced.

That's just one of the hundreds of drowning stories lifeguard Mikhail Solyonov has to tell after 25 years of working at the rescue station at Serebryany Bor, a favorite swimming and sunbathing spot in northwestern Moscow.

The main reasons why Muscovites drown so often are two: vodka and lack of swimming skills.

"It's half unsupervised kids, half drunks," said Solyonov, 45, a muscular man with a shaved head and skin baked to the color of brick. "Water is like fire. It's an element, and people treat it too casually."

With the worst heat wave on record driving people to do anything to cool off, June took a heavy toll on life: 140 people drowned in the month, according to the city's health committee.

During the three-day June 12 Independence Day weekend, 26 people, including one child, drowned in Moscow's ponds, rivers and reservoirs, the city's ambulance service was quoted as saying by Interfax last week.

"It's very rare when there is 31-degree weather every day for a whole month. People just rushed out. The peak always falls on the first hot weeks," Solyonov said.

About 20 people drowned over the last month in the waters of Serebryany Bor, a maze of artificial canals zig-zagging across a large pine tree-covered island in the Moscow River. The area includes Bezdonnoye f Bottomless f Lake and Strogino Bay. Solyonov's team rescued 15 drowning swimmers around Bezdonnoye Lake last month alone.

But Serebryany Bor, though large, is well-guarded with five rescue stations. In many areas where swimming is banned there are no lifeguards, and Muscovites will swim in almost anything: reservoirs, rivers with boat traffic, even fountains and construction sites. Making things worse, Russian children are not taught to swim at school.

The lack of swimming education and plain common sense causes most deaths, Solyonov said. He described a typical scenario: On a weekend, people tend to sleep late and eat a heavy lunch before turning up at the beach around 2 p.m., when the sun is at its zenith. With the heat, full stomachs and too many drinks, accidents are more likely to happen.

"Even an athletic 35-year-old man can get a stroke this way, not to mention the elderly," Solyonov said. "They wake up and go for a dip, but the water is too warm to freshen them up and they are totally dazed."

Many children are left to run around unsupervised. Every year, there are children with head and neck injuries from diving from the bridges into shallow water, he said.

Flocks of street kids often wander into the park to drink alcohol or sniff glue and some of them end up in the water. Last summer, the autopsy of a drowned 19-year-old girl showed she had been taking drugs.

The rescuers at Serebryany Bor also link the growing amount of drownings with the general impoverishment of the population. After the free Young Pioneer camps, where teenagers used to learn to swim with instructors, ceased to exist, many people can't afford to send their children to camp or to a swimming pool.

Every two hours, Solyonov and his colleague, Valery Gritskov, 60, inspect the area on a motor boat, steering between the swimmers. The water is so dense with people it seems to boil. Through a loudspeaker, rescuers warn the parents to keep an eye on their children, who greet the announcement with excited screams. An elderly woman who happens to be nearby starts swimming across the boat's path in panic.

Jet skis and motor boats driven by reckless and unexperienced people are another source of danger, said the lifeguards. In places like Strogino Bay, where "traffic is as heavy as a highway," as Gritskov puts it, they can create waves big enough to capsize windsurfers and paddle boats f and sometimes run over swimmers.

Last Saturday, a 40-year-old swimmer died after he was run over by a jet ski at the Moscow Canal. Swimming is banned in the area because it's right in the way of high-speed hydrofoils and river boats. The blow was so hard that the jet ski, driven by a young woman, was propelled into the air several meters above the water surface. The machine didn't capsize, so the woman restarted it and zoomed away. The man's body was recovered by divers the next day.

Still, many of the drownings in Russia can be attributed to drinking. The prime candidate for drowning in Russia is a male between the ages of 15 and 65. A person who brags he can swim across the Volga in drunken bravado can tire quickly, accidentally swallow some water and vanish without a sound or struggle.

The annual drowning rate for Russia is 8 per 100,000, compared with 1.68 per 100,000 in the United States, The New York Times reported. With some 265 million people, the United States records about 5,000 deaths in the water each year. The typical drowning in America occurs in a swimming pool, and many victims are unsupervised children. Despite a far smaller population, 147 million, about 25,000 Russians drowned last year.

Recovering their bodies is hard and upsetting labor. Divers have to look for them in polluted waters thick with silt and clogged with dead branches, groping with their hands in the darkness. Many rescuers quit because they can't cope with dealing with corpses, Solyonov said, especially when it's a child's body.

"But when you do manage to pull someone and save a life, it's very satisfying," he said.