For the last 100 years, the Water Safety Patrol has served a vital role in the Lake Geneva community. Their mission? To keep Geneva Lake safe for everyone enjoying the water, and that’s no small feat considering the lake’s enduring popularity.
“Geneva Lake is the busiest lake in the state in terms of boats per square mile, and it gets a lot of beach traffic as well,” says Ted Pankau, Operations Director. “There’s also a wide diversity of use. Large boats, small boats, wave runners, canoes, kayaks, tour boats, parasailing— any kind of water activity there is, it’s done here. Therefore, an organization like this is needed to maintain safety.”
The Water Safety Patrol dates back to 1920, when founder Simeon B. Chapin recognized a need to help keep Geneva Lake safe as it grew in popularity with locals and visitors alike. “As more people started to come up from the Chicago area, they recognized it was going to get busier on the water and the beaches,” says Pankau. As a result, Chapin and other lake dwellers formed the Water Safety Patrol.
Nearly 100 years later, Water Safety Patrol, the only organization of its kind in the country, now includes 80 seasonal employees who teach swimming programs, provide lifeguard services for ten different Geneva Lake beaches, and man a fleet of six patrol boats. Their staff is made up of both locals and summer visitors, and includes high school and college students and many teachers. Pankau says that many staff members have been returning to the Water Safety Patrol for years. In fact, he himself is a longtime member; he started as a lifeguard while in college, stayed with the organization on busy weekends and holidays while pursuing a marketing and business career, then took over as Operations Director 29 years ago.
The Water Safety Patrol requires staff members to undergo extensive training and certification in order to participate, and they are required to engage in practices, drills and in–service trainings all season long to keep their skills sharp.
Their training is put to good use. On an average summer day, Water Safety Patrol swim instructors provide lessons at locations around the lake, and the boat crew helms up to five boats — six if there’s a special event such as fireworks or a triathlon. They also provide up to seven lifeguards at each of the lake’s large municipal beaches, as well as at other smaller private beaches in the area.
According to Pankau, despite its growth, the organization has stayed true to the Water Safety Patrol’s original ethos: to use education as a tool to keep the area safe. “We’re also out there for on-water education,” he says. “If we see people operating their boat in an unsafe manner, we’ll stop and talk to them and inform them about the rules of the water. We’re not police officers, so we can’t write tickets, but we can educate people, and that education goes a long way toward improving safety out here.” The idea of education extends to the swim programs as well, which are kept low-cost to ensure accessibility. “We want to teach people how to be safe around the water so we have fewer accidents,” Pankau says.
As a non-profit organization, the Water Safety Patrol is funded primarily through private donations from both people who live on or near the lake, and those who visit. The community also helps support the organization through two annual fundraisers: a lakeshore cocktail party, and a summer dinner with dancing and auctions. “This community feels very strongly that our organization is vital to the lake. That’s why they continue to support us every year,” Pankau explains.
A series of events is planned to mark the Water Safety Patrol’s centennial, including a past member reunion, boat parties, and commemorative materials. But as they pay tribute to the past, the organization is also looking to the future. “We want to continue to be great and to get better every year,” Pankau says, explaining that they’re always researching new methods, techniques and equipment to improve safety. “We’re already looking ahead to the next 100 years.”
By: Molly Each