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The Surf’s Up and So Are Rescues at Beaches : A Rising Number of Saves From Rough Seas Keeps Lifeguards Racing at a Breakneck Pace

Times Staff Writer

Like a well-trained bird dog, Sean Green stood in his lifeguard tower Sunday at Ocean Beach, peering through high-powered binoculars at the pudgy young woman struggling against the churning surf.

No doubt about it, the woman was having problems. She dog-paddled furiously toward shore, but the tides kept sweeping her farther out to sea. The woman yelled at a couple of kids on bodyboards for help. They were too busy catching waves. Finally, strength beginning to wane, she let out a scream.

It was all the prompting Green needed. Scooping up his swim fins and orange rescue buoy, he leaped from the tower and raced into the surf. Within seconds he was to the woman, who gladly accepted a tow back to the beach.

That sort of seashore drama is being repeated with record-setting frequency these days at beaches up and down San Diego’s 17-mile-long coast.

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Balmy temperatures have sent visitors and residents flocking to city beaches, but they’ve been greeted by rough surf and the types of strength-sapping rip tides that normally depart during the spring.

Faced with those kinds of conditions, the city’s 150 lifeguards have been toiling at a breakneck pace to keep up with a flood of bathers floundering in the roily coastal waters. During May, for instance, lifeguards made 530 rescues, compared to only 80 in May, 1985. That pace does not seem to be abating. Lifeguards have hit the water 1,200 times during June, a four-fold increase over the 303 rescues they made during the same month last year.

More ominously, 14 people have drowned in the ocean waters off San Diego this year, while in all of 1985 the total was 13. Lifeguard officials say they’re troubled by the jump, but point out that about 80% of those victims met their deaths in unsupervised areas of the coast.

“We’ve had more than our share of everything,” said Bill Norton, captain of the San Diego City Lifeguard Service. “Considering the number of rescues we’ve been making, we haven’t a great number of drownings. But we have had some, and we’re not happy with it. Our goal is to have none.”

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According to Norton, violent winter storm surf scoured the city’s beaches, creating underwater valleys and troughs that have caused the rip tides that have plagued beachgoers so far this summer.

Typically, Mother Nature takes care of the problem, with gentle south swells pushing a smooth layer of sand over the gouged bottom during the spring. Although that phenomena has only started to materialize in recent weeks, Norton remains optimistic.

“It’s getting better,” he said. “We’re hopeful we’ll be on an even keel here pretty soon.”

The city’s busiest lifeguards have been at Ocean Beach. Although the strip of sand is less than a mile long, Ocean Beach has accounted for nearly half the rescues during June.

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Jim DuBois, a veteran lifeguard who oversees the operation at Ocean Beach, said most of the rescues have come in two spots where the rip currents are especially notorious.

“Two or three weeks ago, we practically couldn’t keep up with the paper work,” DuBois said, hefting a three-inch stack of yellow report sheets that must be filled out following each rescue. “People were getting pulled out right and left.”

In recent days, the currents have started to subside a bit, but DuBois worries that the rip tides will remain a problem, even through the peak summer months of July and August.

To wage their war against the waves, the lifeguards on Ocean Beach employ a wide array of weapons. Aside from the half-dozen lifeguard towers deployed on stilts along the beach, personnel are assigned during daylight hours to a three-story concrete nerve center akin to an airport control tower. There they scan the waters with binoculars and telescopes, coordinating rescues with the aid of high-tech communications gear.

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The lifeguards are trained not only in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and other first aid techniques, but are skilled at rappelling down steep hillsides during rescues along Sunset Cliffs or the bluffs lining Black’s Beach.

And during difficult ocean rescues, the lifeguards can hit the surf in the service’s inflatable powerboats or a Boston whaler.

Such tactics have been necessary, DuBois said, during so-called “mass rescues” in which 20 or 30 swimmers are caught in especially bad currents.

“When it’s really cut loose, it’s like we’re operating on a wing and a prayer,” DuBois said. “It only takes a few seconds for someone to go under and be gone. Then it’s like a needle in a haystack. You may find them in two minutes or you may find them in 40.”

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