Recent drownings at Lake Berryessa cause concern for July 4 weekend

Two drownings in two weeks have Napa County responders worried about crowds at Lake Berryessa this weekend.

More than 30,000 visitors are expected to flock to the lake over the Independence Day holiday weekend.

Berryessa is surging in popularity now that drought has shrunken many smaller lakes, making boating difficult.

"Folsom is down, Don Pedro is down," said a foursome who drove from Sacramento to boat on Berryessa Thursday.

They won't be back for the 4th of July, they said, just too hectic.

"It's going to be a madhouse here, trying to launch your boat, so I'd rather not," said boat owner Robert Silva. "And there are too many people with new boats who don't know what they're doing."

Whatever the weekend brings, Napa County's water cops will be on patrol.

"We had six drownings last year," said Sgt. Jon Thompson, leader of the Napa Sheriff's Department Marine Patrol, steering his boat among Berryessa's many coves.

Thompson is especially concerned because of back-to-back drownings in June.

On June 18, just before 5 p.m., a 22-year-old man drowned in the Pleasure Cove Marina.

He was identified as Billy Dy of San Jose, who had been floating on an inner tube but fell off.

Friends said he did not know how to swim, and although they tried to reach him, he disappeared in the murky water.

"At Lake Berryessa, when our dive teams come out it's a black water dive, they can't see much more than a foot or two ahead of them," said Thompson.

Dy's body was recovered the next day in about 14 feet of water.

On June 27, another young man drowned in the Oak Shores Day Use Area, when he tried to swim from one side of the cove to the other.

Marcos Pocasangre, 25, was from Guatemala, visiting relatives in San Pablo for the summer.

Friends who were with him said he knew how to swim, but he may have misjudged the distance or the depth.

"It's not a swimming pool and there are big drop-offs," said Thomson. "You can be standing in three feet of water, take a step and it's suddenly 11 feet, so things happen here."

Pocasangre's companions did not realize he had gone under until it was too late.

That is often the case because drowning is not generally noisy and dramatic like in the movies.

"Unfortunately it's a quiet death," said Thompson. "I've seen it happen with the entire beach-line packed with people and somebody's gone down and nobody's noticed."

The department's Facebook page has training videos warning visitors how easy it is to drown when exhausted, panicked, or inebriated in the water.

They also show rescue techniques to get someone to shore.

"Have something you can toss out to pull someone in because it can happen to anybody at any time," urged Thompson.

He and his team have seen the hard reality of drowning too many times.

"It's absolutely tragic for these families that come up here to have a great day on the lake but lose a loved one, and we do all we can to help them through the process."

There are commonalities among recent victims: all were from outside Napa County.

Almost all were men in their 20's and thought to be capable swimmers.

"Are they thinking they're invincible and don't need to wear a life jacket? I  don't know," said Thompson somberly. "But I can tell you I  boat on this lake and I am not getting in this water without a life jacket."