Local sailor’s tragic water death prompts awareness campaign


By Jason Starr
The Essex Reporter

Condition can strike swimmers in shallow water

Gov. Peter Shumlin, speaking in front of Mallets Bay, declares June Shallow Water Blackout Awareness month. Dean and Sandy Haller, parents of Benjo Haller, look on. PHOTO | COLIN FLANDER

Gov. Peter Shumlin, speaking in front of Mallets Bay, declares June Shallow Water Blackout Awareness month. Dean and Sandy Haller, parents of Benjo Haller, look on.


The Essex Reporter

A brisk wind washed over Bayside Park on Wednesday as boats bobbed atop the rippling Malletts Bay waters — a fitting backdrop for Gov. Peter Shumlin as he declared June to be Shallow Water Blackout Awareness month.

The Live Like Benjo Foundation — an organization dedicated to the memory of Benjamin C. Haller, a 27-year-old who drowned in seven feet of water last year — hosted the ceremony.

Haller was a familiar figure in Mallets Bay. After enrolling in sailing lessons at the International Sailing Center in the summer between sixth and seventh grade, he would go on to work at the center every summer thereafter.

Haller became close friends with Robin Doyle, the center’s owner, who would eventually serve as his mentor and racing companion.

During 2013 and 2014, Haller sailed his boat, “Momma Dance,” from Malletts Bay to Harbour Island in the Bahamas. After a day of spearfishing on Aug. 1, he returned to the water to practice holding his breath to dive and fish for longer periods of time.

That night, Haller died from a condition called shallow water blackout.

Shallow water blackout is an underwater faint trigged by a lack of oxygen to the brain. Simply holding one’s breath and going underwater, however, does not cause the condition.

Shallow water blackout occurs when a swimmer’s carbon dioxide levels drop due to intentional hyperventilation or physical exertion such as intense swimming. Due to the already low carbon dioxide levels, the brain fails to alert the swimmer to surface, the body loses consciousness and without immediate intervention, the victim will quickly drown.

Dean Haller, president of the foundation and Benjamin’s father, has since made it his mission to spread awareness of the danger shallow water blackout poses.

“Everyone is at risk.  There is a perception that only elite swimmers and free divers succumb to shallow water blackout.  It’s simply not true,” Haller said in a press release. “Kids and adults are all at risk. Even kids who have been running around and playing can drop their carbon dioxide level enough to pass out during brief dives.”

Proper supervision is key in preventing such tragedies, according to the foundation. Lifeguards and aquatics professionals must recognize the signs of the condition, while parents are encouraged to teach their children to avoid breath-holding games and competitions.

Over the last five years, nearly 20 people have drowned in Vermont, according to Betsy Terry, executive director of Vermont Recreation and Parks Association. Other speakers included Tracy Dolan, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health and Mary Burns, CEO of the Greater Burlington YMCA.

Shumlin said that June is the “ideal month for this designation as the summer swimming season begins throughout our great state.”

He went on to speak briefly of the Live Like Benjo Foundation, stating they are “committed to working with Vermont State agencies, schools, and all swimming facilities wand swimmers to raise awareness about the causes of shallow water blackout.”

The foundation, which refers to Malletts Bay as its unofficial home, described its three-part mission: increasing awareness of shallow water blackout, ending deaths related to the condition and supporting sailing instruction for Vermont youth “who would not otherwise get the opportunity to love sailing the way Benjo did,” Haller said.

The last distinction is an important one, for the foundation wishes to make clear their intention is not to keep people out of the water, Haller said. He went on to highlight six scholarships the foundation aims to provide in honor of Benjamin.

“Benjo loved the water. Our mission includes getting more people on the water.  It’s about doing it safely through awareness, training and proper supervision,” Haller said.

Claussen’s Florist and Greenhouse in Colchester is in the middle of a $500,000 investment in reducing its energy footprint that will include an eight-panel solar farm near the corner of Main Street and Middle Road.

The 20-foot-tall panels will have sun-tracking capability and will combine with a series of fixed, rooftop panels to produce roughly 130 kilowatt hours of electricity, according to Claussen’s co-owner Chris Conant. The business has submitted an application with the Vermont Public Service Board for a certificate of public good for the project.

With 40 greenhouses each cooled by two large exhaust fans, Claussen’s is an energy-intensive business. Conant estimates it spends $285,000 a year on natural gas and $75,000 a year on electricity. Company founder Bill Claussen expects on-site solar generation to cut into the business’ energy bills by about 15 percent.

The company has contracted with an energy design and construction company called Smith & McClain of Bristol to permit and build the system. Conant and Claussen expect the panels to be built this summer.

“We got the best of the best panels,” said Claussen. “We said ‘if we’re going to do it, we might as well do it well.’”

The parcel for the panels is toward the back of the Claussen’s property. The business purchased it in 2009 from the Colchester Lions Club. The Lions had used the property to store items for its annual auction fundraiser. Claussen’s now uses it for outdoor growing of perennials, which it will continue to do after the panels are installed. The panels are sited to line the east and north side of the property.

Trees that were planted in 2009 to shield the property from neighbors on Middle Road, and from the Union Memorial School playground that borders the south side, will reduce the visual impact of the solar panels, Conant said. Each of the panels will be 22 feet in width, according to the Public Service Board application.

“You’re going to see them, but the trees will grow to be tall enough to block the majority of the panels,” Conant said.

In addition to energy production, the company’s plan to reduce its energy footprint also includes energy efficiency upgrades that it has already put in place. Efficient new boilers have cut into the company’s natural gas needs, and computerized controllers have been installed to run the greenhouses’ exhaust systems in a smarter way.

“We’ve gone the efficiency route, which is a big step. It’s had a huge impact,” said Conant. “The next step is investing in solar power … anything we can to cut our utility use for economic reasons and for the health of our world.”