by Angela Sanders
“Somebody’s going to die this summer, and they could very well die on your beach,” Dave Haight said, scaring us into vigilance.
I remember hearing this crystal clear as 10 other rookies and I did another set of sandy push-ups.
Dave Haight, an ex-marine and longtime crew chief for the Ocean City, Md. Beach Patrol (OCBP), has seen it all, and he wasn’t about to let us off easy. Most years, there aren’t any deaths in Ocean City, but that season was an anomaly. Little did we know, Dave’s warning would soon become a harsh reality on two beaches just a few months later.
Last summer I worked as a lifeguard, or Surf Rescue Technician (SRT), for the OCBP and gained a new respect for beach safety. Never in a million years had I ever expected that summer to be as wild, stressful and rewarding as it was.
We sat out there almost every day of the summer scanning the ocean, reading its conditions, watching people ride the waves, and admiring the way the beach changed and moved with the wind. I never saw so much beauty (and destruction) like I did that summer. Some days no one went in the water. On others, I was performing rescues several times a day and running covers for my neighboring guards.
Every year in mid May, when the water temperature fluctuates in the 50s, new lifeguards in O.C., Md. endure one of the toughest weeks of their beach careers — Surf Rescue Academy — or as some call it, “hell week.”
Lifeguards arrive at Surf Rescue Academy in the “best condition of their life.” Here, their physical strength and mental grit are put to the test. The OCBP vigorously drills lifeguards on every possible surf rescue, and rookies leave as knowledgeable and highly trained SRTs.
Before “intervening,” lifeguards for the OCBP first strive to “educate” and “prevent.” Besides lathering up with sunscreen and drinking lots of water, however, a lot of beach patrons don’t know how they, themselves, can “prevent.”
So, before you head down to the beach this summer, here are a few tips from the OCBP that could save a life.
Swim Near a Lifeguard
Many of the most serious incidents occur either before lifeguards come on duty or in the evenings after they are off duty.
I’ve experienced this first-hand. I remember sprinting into the water with my buoy to rescue a 7-year-old boy being sucked into a rip current upon arriving to work before hours to set up my stand for the day.
As the OCBP says, “Keep your feet in the sand ‘til the lifeguard’s in the stand.”
Water Conditions: Always ask the lifeguard
When you come to the beach, be sure to find the closest lifeguard, and make it part of your routine to ask them about the water conditions each day. Lifeguards can alert you to any hazards, including rip currents and shorebreak, and direct you to the safest spots to swim.
“Even if it’s a known beach to you, sandbars and the ocean floor can change quickly, even from day to day,” said Marie-Anne Beauchamp, surf rescue teacher and former lifeguard for the OCBP.
Parents, remember to introduce your children to the lifeguard so they know who to go to in an emergency. Make sure your children know which street you are near and have them go to the closest lifeguard if they ever get lost.
Rip Currents: Swim Parallel to the Shoreline
Most, if not all, of my rescues last summer were caused by rip currents. Rip currents are narrow, river-like currents in which water converges and moves away from the shoreline at high speed. Rip currents can sometimes seem invisible from ground level, but the height of the stand gives lifeguards a better view of where they are.
To escape from a rip current, swim parallel to the shoreline. Once you are out of the current’s path, you can swim back toward the beach safely. Whatever you do, remain calm and don’t fight the rip current.
It’s kind of like running on a treadmill. Would you keep running straight to get off of a treadmill moving at high speed? No, you’d tire yourself out. So, step off the side (i.e. swim parallel). Also, don’t be afraid to wave at the lifeguard if you need any assistance. That’s what they are there for.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), rip currents are without question the most dangerous hazard to ocean swimmers accounting for 80 percent of ocean rescues nationwide. The NOAA also estimates that more than 100 people a year drown because of rip currents.
Even the best swimmers can get caught in rips if they don’t know how to maneuver themselves out to safer water. Innocent families of four, body boarders, and dudes as big and strong as my dad can get caught. I’ve experienced each of these rescues; rip currents don’t discriminate.
Shorebreak: Never ride waves in shorebreak conditions
Some of the most dangerous water conditions exist when we are experiencing shorebreak. Shorebreak occurs when strong waves crash onto hard sand or shallow water.
According to the OCBP, the most common cause of neck injuries occurs when body surfers and body boarders ride waves incorrectly or in shorebreak conditions. Neck, back, and spinal injuries in the surf are some of the most critical rescues that lifeguards are trained to perform.
When riding a wave, finish the ride before moving into shallow water. If you are body boarding on top of a breaking wave, the wave could throw you against hard sand. The OCBP calls this “going over the falls.” To prevent this, stay on the rear half of the board. If you need to bailout, go off the back of the board.
When bodysurfing, have your hands out in front of your body. This allows for more control in the water. Parents, keep your children out of the impact zone.
Hole digging: Be cautious of depth
Holes should be kept only as deep as the knee of the smallest child on that beach, according to the OCBP. Just as a person can drown in a small amount of water, it doesn’t take a very deep hole to trap a toddler, who may have wandered off.
Holes can also easily collapse on the people digging them. Once the sand caves in on someone, it is very difficult to dig them out. Sand shifts back into place filling in open spaces (sometimes including airway passages) as people try to move it away from a trapped victim.
Did you know that nationally, according to the NOAA, there are more deaths caused by sand-hole collapses than deaths caused by shark attacks? Fortunately, we can easily prevent these from happening.
May you and your family have a safe and happy summer!