The watercrafts carefully weaved in and out of unruly surf in Huntington Beach as the lifeguards tested their limits, big waves threatening to toss them around on a recent day.
While most people stay clear of the ocean when waves are massive and messy, challenging conditions such as this are what these lifesavers live for.
“These are excellent training conditions because there’s so much water moving,” said Ryan Gates, California State Parks educational officer. “Doing training in strong currents with water moving makes it challenging. If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.”
Lifeguards from all along the Southern California coast — from Laguna Beach to the Ventura Harbor — gathered in Huntington Beach for a four-day training session to sharpen their skills on personal watercrafts, spending the days navigating the wild water as they practiced rescue drills in and out of the surf line, picking up mock victims and hauling them to safety on shore.
The training comes as the unofficial start of summer arrives with the Memorial Day weekend, and millions of people prepare to flock to the coast in the coming months.
Last year, about 380 million people visited beaches around the nation, according to the United States Lifesaving Association. Lifeguards recorded 75,852 rescues and warned an estimated 8.7 million people about taking “preventative actions” before they got into dangerous situations.
Nationwide, an estimated 145 people drowned last year at beaches — most of them, 128, on unguarded beaches.
On beaches where lifeguards were on duty, 17 people lost their lives.
Southern California lifeguards are among the busiest in the country, with tens of millions of beachgoers flocking to the coast year-round. The greatest number visit the California State Parks system at spots dotting the coastline, with an estimated 42.3 million people visiting throughout the year. About 11,000 of those visitors needed to be rescued in 2017, according to USLA stats.
In Orange County, one of the busiest beaches is Huntington City Beach, with an estimated 13.4 million visitors annually, many arriving during the summer. Last year, there were 3,532 rescues at the beach.
Long Beach has fewer people showing up at its beaches — an estimated 2.4 million — but rescue numbers last year were higher, with 3,886 people needing lifeguard assistance, according to USLA.
Laguna Beach keeps busy with its 6.2 million beach visitors and 4,293 rescues in 2017.
But none of the area agencies are as busy as they are at Los Angeles County beaches, where lifeguards watched over an estimated 63 million people last year at popular stretches of beach such as Santa Monica, Zuma, Malibu and along the South Bay coast. In Los Angeles County, about 9,866 people were rescued last year.
Laguna Beach lifeguard Capt. Kai Bond said this week’s training was a good opportunity for agencies to coordinate training protocol. The 15 lifeguards who participated will take the information back to their agencies to teach the rest of their staff.
“The conditions are definitely challenging, it’s been a lot of fun,” Bond said. “We got to work in an environment that is challenging – but it’s controlled.”
The gloomy weather and massive surf also kept beachgoers out of the water, allowing the guards to stay focused on their training.
“We’ve been able to section off a portion of the beach that is just for us,” he said. “That portion of Mother Nature is working for us.”
For Laguna Beach guards, learning skills on watercrafts allows rescuers to get into the tighter spots where rocky outcroppings pose a risk.
“You can get into some critical situations, with a victim, pulling them out of a really bad spot,” Bond said.
In Newport Beach, upward of 10 million people last year came to enjoy the shoreline, with about 3,000 finding themselves in need of lifeguard assistance, according to USLA.
Newport Beach Capt. Mike Ure said the recent training provided a valuable opportunity to brush up on skills right before summer.
“It’s great because it’s focusing on putting together training curriculum and getting your own skills back up,” he said.
Ure noted that with more sharks lingering close to shore, guards have had to use their watercrafts more often in recent years, conducting safety checks along the coast after sightings.
Nick Bolin, a marine safety officer from Seal Beach, said he’s played the role of ski operator, victim and deckhand during the days of training. Seal Beach had an estimated 2 million beach-goers last year, with 864 rescues.
Even though he had to be whipped into the wild surf clinging onto a yellow rescue sled as it slammed into strong whitewash this week, he said the conditions were perfect.
“A thousand pounds in the water, it can cause a lot of damage,” he said of the rescue ski. “We’re testing the limits, but being safe about it. It’s a great opportunity to get everyone together. It doesn’t happen often enough.
“It’s right before we get into our busy season, our real active time of year.”
Article courtesy to Press-Telegram
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