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Ocean current dangers have lifeguards making saves and federal officials on alert

In recent weeks, lifeguards in Laguna Beach and Newport Beach made headlines after saving the lives of five people. A recent surge in crowds at local beaches, compounded by hazardous ocean currents are keeping lifeguards busy.

While officials praise their heroics,  the incidents are also critical reminders for the public that visiting beaches is not like visiting parks. Getting into the water requires knowledge of ocean safety and guidance from lifeguards. They are experts on ocean conditions and getting their input on dangerous currents and obstacles can make the difference between life and death, officials said.



Ocean conditions are dynamic and change day-by-day, even minute-by-minute, and differ from beach to beach.

Dangerous conditions – especially rip currents, high surf and shore breaks – are something every Southern California lifeguard watches. The United States Lifesaving Association says more than 82 percent of rescues are related to rip currents. Seven people died in dangerous currents off California in 2019. One person swimming off Venice Beach died in a rip current this year.

The threat is severe enough, the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration is developing a program for alerting the public through the National Weather Service.


“We take rip currents very seriously,” said Casey Oswant, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “Rip currents are the top weather-related conditions that cause fatalities in our area. We saw that this is an issue, and we wanted to bring more awareness to people about the dangers.”

With the help of local lifeguard agencies in Orange County and San Diego counties, NWS scientists are now receiving daily reports from lifeguards. Categories include surf height, surf direction, rip currents, long-shore currents, water attendance, rescue activity, the number of rip rescues in the previous 24 hours, peak rescue times and ocean and air temperatures. They also record how wide the surf zone is and where the waves break.

Using that information, the NWS has started creating models to predict current conditions and as they become more effective with their forecasts they will make them public for people to use in deciding whether it is safe to go in the ocean.

A pilot program using daily beach conditions data is up and running in Morehead City, N.C. Now, NWS scientists are focused on the California coast. Some forecasting is expected to be available to the public within a year. Scientists have started using some of the data to include rip current strength in NWS’s daily surf reports and expect to have the entire coast modeled within five years.

“The ocean can be dangerous and hazardous, as lifeguards we try to educate people before they go into the water,” said Laguna Beach Lifeguard Captain Kai Bond, pointing out that rock formations found along some of Laguna’s coves added to rip currents and high surf can prove to be deadly.

On June 30, he said a man and woman dressed in wedding attire were swept off rocks at Middleman’s Beach just north of Treasure Island Beach, an area known for rip current danger. Scanning the beach, lifeguard Camron Hauer noticed the couple, which had been standing on the rocks for a photo just a minute or so earlier, had vanished.

He found the man, dressed in a suit and wearing shoes, trying to stay afloat. He was still conscious and Hauer wrapped him into his rescue tube.

“He had to make a difficult decision to leave the male and get the female floating facedown in her bridal gown,” Bond said. “She was close to the rocks, but far offshore. Cam had to rescue the female without a rescue tube. He had to use his bare hands to keep a totally clothed woman above the water.”

A longtime water polo player who was raised in Laguna Beach and is in his 10th year, Hauer safely guided the woman and man to shore as two other lifeguards raced over to help him.

“It was intense and critical,” Hauer said.  “A lot of them (rescues) I can see develop, this was an instant zero to 100.”

Just a few days later, Newport Beach lifeguard Sean Richards on July 3 saved three people caught in a shore break wave. The Southern Hemisphere swell was high and came pounding ashore with a lot of energy.

During the last rescue that day, Richards, 27, of Costa Mesa said he was worried the teen would hit the pilings under the Balboa Pier and had to time his rescue to the waves. When he got to shore he was exhausted and later taken to the hospital for observation.

Both lifeguards will be honored by their cities; the Laguna Beach City Council will recognize Hauer during its Tuesday, July 14, meeting.

While others are calling them heroes, both say they were just doing their jobs.

Still, doing their job could be deadly. Six years ago, Newport Beach veteran lifeguard Ben Carlson, 32, died on July 6 while operating a rescue boat in heavy surf to assist a struggling swimmer. A crashing wave knocked both men underwater. The swimmer, clutching the buoy Carlson gave him, surfaced unhurt. Carlson drowned.

Newport Beach Lifeguard Chief Mike Halphide said from his perspective, communication with lifeguards is critical for all beachgoers. He also applauds the federal program saying it will help reach a broader audience and make information more available to the general public. A typical summer crowd brings more than 100,000 people a day to the seven miles of beaches from Corona del Mar to West Newport.

“Sean’s rescue illustrates how vital it is to have vigilant, well-trained and courageous lifeguards,” Halphide said. “Often people look at the lifeguard in the towers and think, ‘I wish I had that job.’ They don’t understand the skill, responsibility and risk that are part of it as well.

“I would hope people who read about Sean’s rescue, think about it next time they come to the beach, check-in with the lifeguard about the conditions,” he said, “and voice their appreciation for the important and challenging work our lifeguards do.”

Source: Orange County Register

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