A recent change in state public health law recognizes personal watercraft as an official rescue vehicle that can be used as an alternative to surfboats.

Assemb. Fred W. Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) said he sponsored the bill, along with state Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), after being contacted by John Ryan Jr. of the Hampton Lifeguard Association about the restriction in the law.

"According to Mr. Ryan, personal watercraft are faster and more able to negotiate rough surf, permitting lifeguards to better protect public beaches. In particular, it can get emergency personnel to unprotected areas where an emergency might exist," Thiele said in a statement.

Previously, state law only allowed for surfboats of 16 feet or more for water rescues, but agencies such as the Hampton Lifeguard Association of the Town of East Hampton, and Long Beach City Patrol have been using personal watercraft for the past few years. Lifeguard officials say they make it easier to get to distressed swimmers past the wave breaks.

"It can get you out of a life-or-death situation," Paul Gillespie, chief lifeguard of the Long Beach Patrol, said.

Ryan said East Hampton has four working watercraft to cover seven beaches and about 10 miles of oceanfront. They find them invaluable to get to swimmers caught in dangerous conditions outside of protected areas.

State parks lifeguards at Jones Beach or Robert Moses most likely will not use them, said state parks spokesman George Gorman, adding that swimmers at those beaches stay close to shore and are easier to reach with the standard surfboards.

"They are not a tremendous value to us," Gorman said of the watercraft.

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