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Summer beach days? 'Respect the ocean,' one lifeguard says

Long Islanders are hitting the beaches this summer after months in pandemic lockdown but Long Beach officials want beachgoers to be more observant of the safety signs after recent drownings there. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

This story was reported by Antonio Planas, Joan Gralla and John Asbury. It was written by Planas.

Longtime lifeguard Rich Borawski said beachgoers need to follow three simple words when their toes hit the sand before venturing into the water.

“Respect the ocean,” said Borawski, assistant chief of the Long Beach Lifeguard Patrol. “People aren’t … recognizing how rough the water is. It’s not like a pool.”

The beach season on Long Island struck a somber note this month following the deaths of three swimmers. The rare spate of potential summer drownings  occurred less than a week apart — two off the waters of Long Beach and one by Jones Beach — when Tropical Storm Fay made the sea ripe for rip currents, experts said. 

Frequent drownings off Long Island beaches are uncommon. There haven’t been more than two per summer between 2017 and 2019, according to Newsday archives.  Still, lifeguards and first responders urged beachgoers to maintain awareness of water conditions, follow posted signs and only swim when lifeguards are on duty.

Long Beach authorities said the July deaths occurred when lifeguards were off duty during rough surf conditions.

“We want to remind people that swimming is prohibited when lifeguards are not on duty and conditions are bad,” Sgt. Brett Curtis said. “These both occurred during horrific conditions,” Curtis said referring to choppy, rough waters because of the tropical storm. 

The first death on July 9 occurred at 6:55 p.m.  Police were called to the beach off Monroe Boulevard where nine swimmers stranded on a jetty were struggling in the water, Curtis said. Lifeguards and Good Samaritans pulled six of the swimmers from the water, including an 18-year-old man who was in cardiac arrest. Lifeguards and paramedics performed CPR and he was taken to a nearby hospital where he died.

Lifeguards are on duty seven days a week during the summer between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The second death on July 12 occurred shortly before 8 a.m. off Long Beach Boulevard where firefighters and lifeguards rescued three swimmers in the water. A 30-year-old man was in cardiac arrest and later died. The other two swimmers had minor injuries and declined to be treated, Curtis said.

Borawski, a lifeguard for 37 years, said he doesn’t remember any drownings occurring while lifeguards were on duty. He said he expects the city to post more signs by the beach warning that swimming is prohibited when no lifeguards are working.

The city does keep a skeleton lifeguard crew on duty after 6 p.m. until 8 or 9 p.m. to respond to any rescues, officials said. Summer special police officers also traverse the beach after hours on beach vehicles and all-terrain vehicles to ensure swimmers stay out of the water.

“It’s a large beach and we can’t be everywhere at once,” Curtis said.

Long Beach charges $15 for nonresidents for a day beach pass. Beach fees pay for the lifeguards and beach maintenance, officials said.  

The city's Lifeguard Patrol has a staff of 150, mostly lifeguards, Borawski said.

The city has seen a steady beach crowd, as it does every year, but city officials are limiting beach capacity to 50% to ensure social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lifeguard staffing has remained consistent with previous years and will occasionally be extended depending on how many people remain on the beach, officials said.

Unlike the swimmer deaths off Long Beach shores, a swimmer died off Jones Beach while state park officials had a “full complement” of lifeguards on duty, said Brian Nearing, a state parks spokesman.

Authorities identified the deceased man as 35-year-old Cecil G. Letts of New Rochelle. Letts was pulled from the water by lifeguards onto Field 2 Beach about 3 p.m. this past Tuesday. State park police administered CPR on Letts, officials said.

Nearing said in an email, state park beaches are adequately staffed with 498 lifeguards, up from 482 last summer.

State park lifeguards work eight-hour shifts five days a week. Swimming is prohibited when lifeguards are not on duty, Nearing said. Lifeguard hours vary by beach.

Officials and forecasters pointed to riptides as the likely culprits in the three deaths.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, rip currents are described as powerful, narrow channels of fast-moving water. They can move up to eight feet per second, and can catch unsuspecting swimmers off guard, leading to panic and potential drownings after fatiguing swimmers, the NOAA said.

Tom Gill, vice president of United States Lifesaving Association, a nonprofit, cautioned that to the novice, rip currents might look deceptively attractive. They can develop between waves and look like a smooth path between them —  and their treacherous power may not be instantly obvious.

“When you see a calm area, it can be dangerous. That might be the worst place to be,” he said.

To escape, strong swimmers can swim alongside the shore, perpendicular to the rip current, until they have crossed its width. Alternatively, every swimmer can just float and wait for the rip current to loop back to the shore though that does require stoicism coupled with patience, experts said.

Back on Long Beach on a cloudy Friday, strong winds kept most people out of the water but the conditions were ideal for 12-year-old twins who were taking surf lessons.

The twins' mother, Nicole Skolnick, 46, of Port Washington,  rested comfortably on a beach chair  as Ava and Grace were among a group of a few kids in the rough waters. Strong winds whipped the sea while Skolnick’s gaze remained on her children.

She said the recent swimmer deaths were “concerning,” and she avoided telling her daughters in order not to scare them. On Friday morning, Skolnick’s tweens were surrounded by adults who were ready to spring to action if anything went awry.

“There are trained surfers and lifeguards around. They are watching them,” Skolnick said.

Safety tip from experts

Learn to spot — and if necessary — cope with rip currents.

Rip currents form on the East Coast where there are gaps in sandbars. So look for places where the waves are not breaking evenly in a row but are irregular.

These swift jets of outbound water often are discolored by the sand they are carrying out to sea.

Their speed is why surfers may rely on them to take them out beyond the breakers.

To escape, strong swimmers can swim alongside the shore, perpendicular to the rip current, until they have crossed its width.

Alternatively, every swimmer can just float and wait for the rip current to loop back to the shore though that does require stoicism coupled with patience.

Sources: U.S. Coast Guard, Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, U.S. Lifesaving Association.

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