Supt. & BOE member, twin sisters, rescue swimmers on Lake Ontario
On Board Online • September 18, 2017
By Eric D. Randall
Every summer, twin sisters Erin Gardner and Jennifer Gaffney-Goodnough invite friends to enjoy a day at a beach accessible only by boat at Sandy Island Beach State Park near Watertown. The former is a member of the South Jefferson school board and the latter is the new superintendent of the Sackets Harbor school district in Jefferson County.
On Thursday, Aug. 24, as they were setting up on the beach, a woman approached them and asked if they owned the boat anchored nearby. She said four children had gotten caught in a current near a channel that leads to Lake Ontario. An adult who was a strong swimmer went after them, but the current got her, too.
All five had disappeared from view.
The Coast Guard had been called, but its arrival time was uncertain.
The sisters sprinted for Gaffney-Goodnough’s 19-foot motorboat, which was anchored just off the beach. Gaffney-Goodnough, the older sister by two minutes, took the helm. Gardner, who works as superintendent of Watertown Parks and Recreation Department and is a certified pool operator, hoped she wouldn’t have to use her lifesaving training.
“There was a pretty significant storm the Monday prior, so there were lots of waves, lots of wind,” Gaffney-Goodnough said.
“The water was incredibly rough,” said Gardner, who has been on the South Jefferson board since 2014. On her mind was the fact that the district lost a student and a graduate, ages 14 and 18, in June after they were caught in a Lake Ontario undertow.
After about 10 minutes, they were through the channel. They saw swimmers in two groups – a woman and boy on the left, and a couple of boys with a girl on the right. The children ranged in age from about 8 to 12.
“They were all wearing life jackets, which was good, but they couldn’t swim in,” Gaffney-Goodnough said. “They were very tired because they had been out there for some time.”
Gaffney-Goodnough slowed her boat, called Long Day. (“It was the name of the boat when we bought it, and it’s bad luck to change it.”)
“We had to stop the boat close to them but not so close that the waves would make them crash into us, or vice versa,” she said. “That was pretty tricky.”
Gaffney-Goodnough cut the engine. Gardner lowered a ladder at the rear of the boat and reached into the water. First aboard was an exhausted boy of about 10 or 12, followed by an adult sputtering praise and thanks.
“We had to restart the engine, drive very carefully over to the second group, and then my sister had the assistance of the other adult woman to help pull the other three children in,” Gaffney-Goodnough said. “The kids were very scared and the adult was very grateful.”
After everyone disembarked, both groups went back to enjoying the beach. It was sunny and about 70 degrees.
“I saw the kids playing on the sand,” Gaffney-Goodnough said. “I did not see them in the water again.”