Lifeguards stage mock rescue to highlight dangers at the beach
The four bodyboarders were sucked out to sea in a strong rip current that pulled them far beyond the breaking waves.
A lifeguard noticed them struggling and grabbed his red buoy, swimming out to help with the rescue. Another guard, watching from a nearby tower, also sprung into action, before a yellow lifeguard boat and a personal watercraft zipped through the rough water to assist.
It’s a scene that will play out at many Southern California beaches this summer — and lifeguards want beachgoers to know the dangers that can unfold during a pleasant day on the sand.
Thursday’s simulated rescue — held just before the Memorial Day weekend and as part of National Beach Safety Week — took place at Huntington State Beach, to showcase how lifeguards at one of the area’s busiest beaches perform on the job.
It was also a chance for State Parks officials to put out the word that they are hiring, looking for more recruits to “Live the Parks Life,” a new campaign that spotlights the unique jobs that often teeter between being a lifeguard and a police officer.
Tips to stay safe
State Parks Superintendent Kevin Pearsall looked out to the ocean, pointing out the trouble spots.
Waves on Thursday were a strong 3- to 5-foot, some larger, and big enough to knock over someone standing in waist-deep water. There was a strong rip current that could easily pull out an unknowing swimmer.
The conditions will remain strong through the holiday weekend, with surf forecast in the 3- to 4-foot range through Monday.
“We have some of the most constant, consistent and strong rips of anywhere in Southern California,” Pearsall said, pointing out the brownish, choppy surface water that makes the rip current distinguishable.
The secret, he said, is to ride the current out or swim to the left or right. Don’t try to swim straight back in.
“Those are the ones who get exhausted,” he said. “Weaker swimmers get into distress.”
Two million people are expected to visit Huntington State Beach this summer, and lifeguards likely will make thousands of rescues. “They are up and down those towers, all day, every day,” Pearsall said.
The best thing beachgoers can do is talk to the lifeguards in the towers and ask what dangers are in the area.
One helpful tip if swimmers find themselves in trouble: Don’t panic.
“A lot of people panic because they get tossed around a bit and they didn’t expect that, and we have more of a crisis situation because you’re more in your head than you are in your environment,” he said. “You have to focus on ‘everything will be OK’ and remember your basics of swimming.”
And if you’re really in trouble, signal to lifeguards that you need help by waving your hands in the air. “That’s the international sign of distress,” Pearsall said. “They will see that and respond.”
It’s not just what you can see that may cause harm. Debris or rocks can pose a danger under the ocean’s surface, as can uneven sand shifted by wave movements.
“The bottom is moving constantly and changing constantly,” Pearsall said. “This is the ocean … you have to be cautious that there is potential for there to be a hazard anywhere in the ocean.”
A unique job
Pearsall wears a gun on his hip and a badge, not the typical attire for lifeguards along the coast.
State Parks guards are different than other lifeguarding agencies in that they are sworn peace officers that undergo extensive training similar to what police officers must complete.
Unlike other lifeguards, they can haul someone off to jail if they are causing trouble.
State Parks is looking to beef up its permanent and seasonal lifeguard staff, as well as hire rangers to work within the 280 State Parks. The system is made up of 340 miles of coastline, 970 miles of lakes and rivers, 15,000 campsites and 4,500 miles of trails.
About 60 full-time permanent lifeguards and 400 rangers oversee areas such as campgrounds, lakes and deserts, but the state is looking to staff-up more this year.
The four struggling bodyboarders, Thursday, actually were lifeguards playing the part. They made it back to shore with the help of the rescuers and their red flotation buoys.
“It’s easy to get sucked out. Stay on the inside. Be prepared at the beach, because you never know,” David Buckalew, a seasonal lifeguard with State Parks for eight years, said to the mock victims when they reached shore.
Buckalew, 29, bounces from Huntington Beach in the summer months to Monterey during the winter.
It’s a job that allows him the flexibility to travel the world and surf.
“I love it. It’s a great job, the best job I’ve ever had,” he said. “Being at the beach, every now and then you get positive interactions with people, the opportunity to get out there and make a difference and actually save a life … it’s a pretty special job.”
There are the challenging days, of course.
“These days get long, you’re working a 10-hour shift but it might turn into 14,” Buckalew said. “When it gets really busy out here, there’s 20,000 people on the beach and you’re going in and out of the water all day long, running around.”
For more information on State Parks jobs, go to livetheparkslife.com