Swimmers urged to use only lifeguard-protected beaches

A surfer catches a wave in Long Beach. A surfer catches a wave in Long Beach. (Aug. 7, 2010) Photo Credit: J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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Lifeguards and park officials agree rip currents have been less dangerous this summer than in previous years but say the weekend drowning death of a woman in the Atlantic Ocean off Amagansett reinforces the need for people to swim only at ocean beaches protected by lifeguards.

"The rip currents this year really are not that different from most other years," said Tom Donovan, president of the Jones Beach Lifeguard Corps, the Long Island state park lifeguards' union. "Last year was exceptional in the amount of rip currents and rescues. This year the surf hasn't been quite as rough. We haven't had as many tropical storms."

National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Scalora said the recent increase in rip currents was caused by widely spaced ocean swells coming ashore with high tides and strong ocean winds - a common summer combination here.

Rip currents, which form when waves wash over an offshore sandbar, become trapped near the beach and then carve a channel back to deep water, are the cause of most lifeguard rescues.

Leslie Sgaglione of Old Brookville drowned on Sunday and several others were pulled from the water at Amagansett Beach where strong rip currents made swimming treacherous in the afternoon.

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"We haven't had the volume of rescues we had last year but these rip currents are ever-present," said Jim Dooley, Suffolk County chief lifeguard. "The sand is forever moving along the shoreline."

He said county lifeguards made 460 rescues in July last year compared to less than 200 this July.

George Gorman Jr., deputy regional director for state parks, said lifeguards at Jones Beach, Robert Moses and Hither Hills made several hundred rescues over the weekend. Last summer, they carried out 6,185. Through the end of July this year, the total was 2,589.

But beach officials said the National Weather Service is still predicting an above-average number of hurricanes and tropical storms despite a slow start. "This ocean environment can change in a flash," Dooley said.

That's why officials stressed the importance of swimming only where lifeguards are on duty and asking them about swimming conditions. "They need to be very aware of their circumstances," Donovan said. "If in doubt, don't go out."

Monday in Amagansett, Debby Loewenberg of Wellfleet, Mass., was with her husband and adult children on the same unprotected beach where Sgaglione drowned. When they learned about her death, they moved to Atlantic Avenue Town Park, which has lifeguards. "Even though we can all swim," she said, "I'd rather have that peace of mind."

With Zeke Miller

and Matthew Coleman

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