Jamee Markley sat in a beach chair at the edge of the dark water of Wirth Lake in north Minneapolis on Tuesday, keeping a close eye on her sons as they played in the water.

Gavin, 11, and Hunter, 9, have access to a pool at their St. Michael home and know how to swim. Still, even with a lifeguard perched nearby, Markley kept her eyes glued to them.

“You just never know when something could happen,” she said. “They could slip and fall and hit their head, and in the water they go. So it’s scary.”

Such parental caution is well-advised as the long holiday weekend arrives, bringing a stretch of hot, sunny weather the likes of which we haven’t seen this year — perfect for hitting the beach or pool.

By this time last year — one in which swimming weather arrived far earlier — Minnesota already had seen 27 drownings, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. By the end of 2012, 40 people had drowned in non-boating incidents in Minnesota.

So far this year, eight people have drowned. The difference is definitely weather-driven, officials say. “When it’s a hot summer, we have more drownings; there are more people using water,” said Lisa Kiava, spokeswoman for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.

In Hennepin County, four people have drowned this year, three of them after vehicles broke through ice. There have been none in Ramsey County and one in Washington County, where a snowmobiler plunged into open water in the St. Croix River in February.

‘Drowning is silent’

As the 2013 swimming season blooms, there are some safety concerns that go beyond those encountered every year.

Kara Owens, boat and water safety specialist at the DNR, said her biggest concern is the uncommonly high water on lakes and rivers, many of which are also loaded with flood and storm debris in the wake of this spring’s relentless rains.

“[Swimmers] thinking about taking a dip in the St. Croix or the Mississippi rivers ... they need to be aware that the high water can often mean a fast current, and a fast current could sweep you away,” Owens said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, children between the ages of 1 and 4 most commonly drown in swimming pools, while more than half of fatal drownings among people over age 15 occur in natural bodies of water.

Drowning happens quickly and often quietly, unlike the screaming and splashing scenes people see on TV.

“A lot of times, drowning is silent,” Owens said. Signs include a person’s head low in the water, tilted back with their mouth at water level; hair covering their forehead and eyes; a vertical position in the water; appearing as if they are climbing an invisible ladder.

Eyes on the water

This year, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has added more lifeguards and increased their hours. Last year, two city beaches were guarded daily and six were guarded Thursday through Sunday. This year, five are guarded daily and three are guarded Thursday to Sunday.

In this year’s training, Minneapolis lifeguards focused a lot more on the wide range of swimming skills that beach- and pool-goers have.

Tyler McKean, aquatic program and facility manager for St. Paul Parks and Recreation, said that the city had not changed its lifeguard training in the past few years other than updating CPR requirements.

As crucial as lifeguards are, Kiava warns against overreliance on them.

“That is your second line of defense,” she said. “The first line of defense is active supervision from the parent or the adult supervisor.”

Julie and Sam Nelson understand that well. On Tuesday, they stayed close to their 3-year-old son, Cohen, as he splashed in Wirth Lake. He particularly likes chasing the small fish that dart about in the lake’s shallows.

“He doesn’t really like being constrained in his lifejacket, so we just don’t take our eyes off him,” said Julie, 25.

Help for high-risk groups

Members of minority groups, including several children, were disproportionately victims in last year’s spate of drownings in Minnesota. That reflects a national trend: Black children from ages 5 to 14 are almost three times as likely to drown as white children in the same age range, the CDC says.

Members of minority groups are less likely to have had swimming lessons and have less access to safe swimming areas, experts say.

Staffers from the Minnesota Water Safety Coalition, created last year, visit apartment complexes with high minority populations to offer poolside demonstrations of what drowning looks like and how to help. Kiava said the programs have drawn good-sized groups.

Last week, the Minneapolis Park Board started offering free water safety clinics for children ages 5 to 14 who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches in hopes of reaching immigrant and minority populations who may not know how to swim.

The sessions are not swimming lessons but rather provide instruction on water safety. The first one, at Wirth Lake, drew 60 participants. The next sessions will be held at Lake Nokomis from
11:15 a.m. to noon Monday through Thursday July 8-11.

‘Layers of safety’

Water safety begins even before arrival at a pool or beach, said Sarah Chillo, who works in aquatics for the Minneapolis Park Board. She recommends preventive measures — making sure there’s a lifeguard at your destination, setting up a buddy system and doing frequent check-ins with those in your group.

“There is no one method to prevent drowning,” Kiava  said. “You have to have layers of safety in place, because if one safety measure fails, then another safety measure needs to be there. Because it happens so quickly.”

Lydia Coutré • 612-673-4654