Back many years ago (1982-85), I was a lifeguard at Ortley Beach, N.J. Worked three and a half summers, mostly on the ocean side. In probably 150 days of oceanfront work, I had to go into the water about a dozen times.
The first time was my first or second day on the job. It was cold and rainy, and so all the lifeguards were sitting in the beach house. Suddenly, we heard three whistles ... that's the call for a rescue. We all came running out of the house. In the ocean were two girls caught in a rip tide. They were heading at about a 60 degree angle to the beach. As the new guy, I had to go get them. I ran with the rope box (jeez, I forget what we called it — rescue line box) about 200 yards down the beach, grabbed the torpedo buoy and swam out with the line. By the time I got there two more guards had been hanging out with the girls for a while. We pulled them back in. A little while later, we had to go get someone else. I was a little tired of hauling that box around.
The next time, I went in a week later because a guy looked like he was drowning. He ignored my whistles, he thrashed around, and he went under. I went to go get him, but he swimmed away. I felt like an idiot. A fellow lifeguard said it looked like he was drowning and backed me up, and no one ever said a word to me about it.
Then a week or so later, we had a really rough day. There was a rip current, and we could see people get caught in it and get yanked out to sea. Then I was taught you wait a while ... let the folks struggle with the current. If they make it out, you're okay. If they continue to struggle, you wait until they can't get their arms out of the water anymore. Then you go get 'em. That way, they have no doubts in their mind that you saved them, and won't give you shit for embarrassing them. We went in six or so times that day. It was cool to see exactly how a save worked. A perfect training exercise.
By the way, all these saves happened on the exact same spot on the beach. Apparently there was a low spot on the beach right there.
When you go to the ocean, watch how the waves crash and flow along the beach. Occasionally you'll see a spot where all the water is rushing. This is a low spot ... and forms a kind of river of water going back out into the ocean. If sufficiently strong, it becomes a rip current that no one can outswim. The good news is the river only goes out so far before it dissipates into the deep water in the ocean (usually past the first sand bar).
Caught in a rip current, you have a few choices:
1. Stop swimming and float. The rip current will take you out — maybe quite far if you're in an area with long shallows such as Florida. Eventually, it will stop. Then swim back in. Note: You may need to be able to swim 500 or 1,000 yards to do this.
2. Stop swimming, float for a moment and figure out where the current is taking you. Then swim across the current as if you were swimming across a river. Ignore the beach for the moment, and especially ignore where you came into the water. Just swim across the current until you're out of the current. At that point, you just swim back in directly.
What's odd is all the saves I made all occurred within a few weeks, tops, of each other. Nearly four summers and we had one month of bad ocean. Following the news or asking the lifeguards is also a good way to find out how things are.
One more story. This highlights a second danger at the ocean. This one occurs in the wash. A big wave comes in, suddenly pools up underneath someone, and pulls them into a current. It's really cool to see. Usually it happens to kids, but down in Florida it apparently happened to adults.
Once, at the end of a cold day when we weren't allowing anyone near the water, I walked out to the lifeguard stand. It was so cold I was wearing everything — windbreaker, sweat top, t-shirt, sweat bottoms, and sneakers. I was never dressed like this. Anyway, I relieved another lifeguard, sending him back to the guard house, and started to undress in case I had to get someone.
A father was walking with his son, holding his hand like a good father. I guess the kid was about six years old, near the wash. I hadn't even gotten the windbreaker off when a wave came in and just swelled up. The father looked away for a second, and his son was momentarily behind him. The wash came in, lifted this son off his feet, and pulled their hands apart. Then the ocean took the kid straight out to sea. I mean, maybe three seconds passed between the father looked away and his son was 10 yards into the ocean heading straight out. It was like the sea was a monster that just snatched this kid and ate him. Poor kid was shocked, trying to swim. Seriously, this kid was dead meat. The father meanwhile continued to look away and I guess he thought his son just stopped holding his hand. After all the wave only came up to the father's knees, but it was enough to sweep the kid right off his feet.
I couldn't get the kid. I needed at least 30 seconds to undress, and by that time the kid might be 100 yards off shore, and maybe under water in the minute I needed to get him.
So I blew three whistles. Another guard looked up. I pointed. It was in front of my stand, but the ocean was fortunately not taking the kid out anymore but pulling the kid more toward his stand. The guard was only wearing a windbreaker and shot down there and grabbed the kid. The guard had him practically before his father knew what was happening.
I know this took a bit of time to explain but it happened so fast it's amazing. The ocean just grabbed the kid and yanked him off the land.
Funny. I haven't been to the beach much since those summers. When I have gone, it has taken conscious effort not to watch everyone. It still takes conscious effort. I think it's because that I saw the ocean grab that kid. I see tykes near the water and think, oh man, do you know what can happen in a second?
Still the beach is great. Don't get all paranoid about it like I am. As I said, all that stuff happened in a total of four days ... the other 150 or so were perfectly fine.