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Coroner Finds Paddleboarder Who Drowned in Santa Barbara Harbor Did Not Inflate Life Vest

30-year-old Westmont College graduate could not swim, did not have a leash on his board and didn't inflate his belt-pack floatation device, report says

Rescue swimmers search for a missing paddleboarder on April 29, 2017, in the Santa Barbara Harbor area. A dive team later found Davies Kabogoza’s body. Click to view larger
Rescue swimmers search for a missing paddleboarder on April 29, 2017, in the Santa Barbara Harbor area. A dive team later found Davies Kabogoza’s body.  (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk file photo)

The Westmont College graduate who drowned after falling off his paddleboard at the Santa Barbara Harbor earlier this year didn’t know how to swim, and did not inflate his belt-pack-style floatation device, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.

The Coroner’s Office recently concluded its report on the death of 30-year-old Davies Kabogoza, who died April 29 in an accidental drowning.

Kabogoza, a native of Uganda, came to the United States in 2010 and played soccer at Santa Barbara City College and Westmont, where he graduated in 2016. He coached soccer at Laguna Blanca School, and also worked as a physical therapy aide in Santa Barbara.

Kabogoza and a friend, a 19-year-old woman, rented stand-up paddleboards from the Santa Barbara Sailing Center at about 2:20 p.m. on April 29, and both requested belt-pack floatation devices, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

The Sailing Center owner told authorities that Kabogoza had rented paddleboards several times since March, and employees were unaware that he did not know how to swim, sheriff’s spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said.

The belt-pack devices are designed to be worn around the waist, with the floatation part to the front, and secured in the back. There is a pull cord to inflate the vest.

Both Kabogoza and his compansion were wearing the floatation devices as required when they left the rental shop, Hoover said.

Davies Kabogoza graduated from Westmont College in 2016. Click to view larger
Davies Kabogoza graduated from Westmont College in 2016.  (Courtesy photo)

However, his paddleboard, a Yolo brand intermediate board, did not have a leash, which typically attaches the board to the paddler’s ankle to keep the board close.  

The friend told authorities she was paddling in front of Kabogoza near the mouth of the Santa Barbara Harbor as they headed back to return the boards, and the water had gotten choppy when the wind picked up, Hoover said.

When the woman heard a splash behind her, she turned around and saw Kabogoza in the water, struggling to stay above water.

“He went under the water for a moment before resurfacing and again going under the water.  After the second time going under, she never saw the decedent again,” Hoover said.

The woman couldn’t reach him because of the water conditions, and he disappeared around 4 p.m.

The Harbor Patrol and Santa Barbara City Fire Department arrived on the scene and rescue swimmers searched for him while a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter looked from the air, but couldn’t locate him in the water.

The San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s Dive Team, which was in the area for training, joined the search and found Kabogoza’s body at the bottom of the harbor in about 30 feet of water, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

The Coroner’s Office determined there was no foul play, and that the manner of death was accidental drowning due to Kabogoza not knowing how to swim, Hoover said.

As to Kabogoza’s floatation device, the investigation found that it was in “good working order” but was never inflated – possibly because he was wearing it backwards, according to authorities.

“The belt was found attached to his waist with the flotation part of the device facing backwards, and the strap was secured tightly around his waist, which would make it difficult to move the device to a correct position during a stressful situation,” Hoover said.

The belt-pack style of inflatable floatation device is frequently used among local paddleboarders, and wearing them backwards is also common, according to Harbor Patrol Supervisor Steve McCullough.

The U.S. Coast Guard requires some type of personal floatation device for stand-up paddleboards, some kind of sound signaling device (usually a whistle), and a light if they operate at night, he said.

If it’s an inherently buoyant personal floatation device, like the foam vests, people don’t have to wear them unless they’re under the age of 13, but they do have to be available. Some people strap the floatation devices to their paddleboards.

“It’s advisable to wear it – if you fall in the water and you go one way and the board goes another way, and the life vest is strapped to your board, it doesn’t do you any good,” McCullough said.

Leashes are not required, but are a good idea to keep the paddleboard close, he said, adding that using a leash may not be advisable for paddleboarding in the surf or a river.  

The U.S. Coast Guard says inflatable floatation devices, like the kind Kabogoza was wearing, are not recommended for people who don’t know how to swim.    

As McCullough put it, non-swimmers may not have the awareness to reach down, pull a cord, and then pull the inflated vest over their heads.

Two paddleboarders in the Santa Barbara Harbor, seen in 2015, wear belt-pack floatation devices, with the yellow pull cords visible. They are wearing the devices backwards, which Harbor Patrol Supervisor Steve McCullough said is common but unwise. Click to view larger
Two paddleboarders in the Santa Barbara Harbor, seen in 2015, wear belt-pack floatation devices, with the yellow pull cords visible. They are wearing the devices backwards, which Harbor Patrol Supervisor Steve McCullough said is common but unwise.  (Noozhawk file photo)

Unless people offer up the information they cannot swim, they may not get that advice, he noted.

McCullough said he notices most stand-up paddleboarders choose to wear an inflatable device, while kayakers often wear an inherently buoyant life vest.

He also said most local paddleboarders he sees are not wearing the belt-pack devices at their belly; they are wearing them backwards.

To use it properly in the water, someone would have to pull it around to the front, before or after it’s inflated, which could be difficult without the swimming ability to tread water, he said.  

The Harbor Patrol is called out for a lot of assists to kayakers and paddleboarders in the harbor and surrounding areas, McCullough said.

Common calls include people falling off or out of their craft and not being able to get back on, or people who can’t get back to shore because of wind or water conditions, he said.

People should always paddle with a friend and watch the weather to avoid offshore winds, he noted.

“One thing I like to say, which is not a rule – don’t paddle farther from shore than you can swim,” he said. “If you lose it, you don’t have a leash and the life vest is strapped to your board and goes away in the wind, you’re out there by yourself whatever distance you are from shore.”

Santa Barbara Sailing Center owner Skip Abed did not respond to requests for comment.  

A GoFundMe page has been set up in Kabogoza’s memory to raise funds to transport his body to Uganda for burial.

Organizers said any additional funds will go to his mother, who has an ongoing illness, and humanitarian needs in his home village.

As of this week, the campaign raised more than $23,000 of a $30,000 goal. 

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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