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Swim At Your Own Risk

Recent drownings emphasize beach safety

Lammens says the Coast Guard is called in “any water-related emergency.” Their sea rescue is limited, however, by the condition of the surf—which can be especially treacherous on the South Shore, the site of the recent drownings.

“The way Long Island is shaped in the actual contour of the beach, it’s a very dangerous place when the winds pick up,” explains Dave McCarthy, U.S. Coast Guard chief warrant officer, whose unit responded to the Cupsogue rescue effort.

It’s also imperative for beachgoers to know just when lifeguards officially begin monitoring their beach, stress officials. Some state beaches have had lifeguards on duty since Memorial Day Weekend: Jones Beach, Robert Moses, Sunken Meadow and Hither Hills, among others. Beaches at Heckscher State Park, Orient Beach State Park and Wildwood State Park—as well as Long Beach—are not staffed until June 26. Cupsogue, a Suffolk County beach, has been fully staffed since June 14. Town and village beaches have varying dates.


Yet as the school season ends, the beach season kicks into overdrive, both in terms of who’s frolicking in the waves and who’s watching them.

Paul Gillespie, chief of the Lifeguard Corps for Long Beach, tells the Press the majority of his lifeguards are either schoolteachers or students. A representative for Westhampton beaches says many of their beach managers are also schoolteachers. The beach season, as a result, correlates with the end of the school year.

According to the New York State Department of Health, from 1987 to 2007, most drowning victims at regulated facilities (beaches and swimming pools) were between the ages 11 and 25.

“[Young swimmers] think they can handle a situation when they really can’t,” says Gillespie. “They underestimate the power of the ocean, or they don’t know the power of the ocean.”

Riptides are a large part of this equation. They occur when waves pile up in sand troughs and exit quickly through a break in the sand wall that traps them, according to The Long Island Region’s Lifeguard Rookie Handbook 2010. Riptides develop frequently in the early spring and summer months because winter storms create unstable ocean bottoms. The U.S. Lifeguarding Association’s national statistics state rip currents as responsible for more than 80 percent of all surf beach incidents.

Identifying and knowing how to survive them, explains Kramer, the veteran Jones Beach lifeguard, is of grave importance.

“We need to recognize that the water is rushing out rather than coming in, and you can see it,” he says. “The water is discolored, the waves aren’t breaking the same way across the beach, [and] you can see that you get a mushroom shape of a lot of sand and debris in the riptide itself.”

Kramer offers the following advice for swimmers that find themselves in the grip of riptides: swim parallel to the shore and remain calm.

“Allow [the current] to take you out even though you’re still swimming parallel to the shore,” he says. “Once you’re out of it, you’ll be able to come in. The waves will pretty much knock you in.”

Kramer stresses the importance of swimmers being smart and responsible: “[Swimmers] should have some experience before they’re going to go in over their head.”

To prevent future drowning tragedies, officials urge beachgoers to pay attention to beach conditions.

“Pay attention to the weather report,” advises McCarthy of the Coast Guard. “Call your town and find out what beaches have lifeguards on them.”

Officials hope beachgoers, armed with these tips, will put safety first when stepping out into the water this summer, especially in lieu of the recent drownings. Dr. Maria Torroella Carney, commissioner of the Nassau County Department of Health, urges beachgoers to take safety into their own hands: “Beach drownings are preventable!”

Know Before You Swim

Nassau County Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Maria Torroella Carney encourages residents to follow the following safety tips for a safe and enjoyable summer at the beach:

• Swim in areas with a lifeguard on duty only—never swim when a lifeguard is not present.

• Be Cautious—don’t overestimate your swimming abilities.

• Follow the buddy system—never swim alone.

• Swim drug and alcohol free—alcohol and other drugs impair good judgment, which may cause people to take risks they wouldn’t normally take.

• Obey all posted signs.

• Be prepared for the next incoming wave—never turn your back on the water.

• If a problem arises, contact the lifeguard on duty. They are there to help.

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