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Rough Riptides, Wilted Crowds to Keep Lifeguards on Their Toes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Local lifeguards are predicting that the rush of heat-weary people toSan Diego County beaches, coupled with rough surf, could make this weekend a big headache for them and dangerous for swimmers.

“The pressure will be on,” said Craig Williams, a Solana Beach-Encinitas lifeguard. “Conditions are dangerous, and it’s real crowded. We’ve had tons of rescues.”

At beaches notorious for strong rip currents, such as Ocean Beach, lifeguards expect to be extra busy starting today.

“We anticipate having a heavy weekend. . . . We’re expecting extra-high rescue counts,” said Lt. Charlie Wright of the San Diego Lifeguard Service. “About 80% of our rescues are because of rip currents.”

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Rescues have been up at beaches all week, from Oceanside to the Silver Strand. Lifeguards at San Diego city beaches, for example, rescued 137 people in the last four days. Oceanside has had three times the normal number since Monday. And the Silver Strand has had about 15 per day, a 50% increase.

An exception seems to be Coronado, where lifeguards are expecting business as usual because of cooler water and normal surf. “We’re kind of low-key here,” said recreation director Leslie Shinners.

Though less than a mile long, Ocean Beach far outnumbers the others in rescues and rip currents. “We’ve got one of the most dangerous beaches in California,” Wright said. “It’s punctuated with natural and man-made objects that create rip currents. Every 40 to 80 yards down the beach, there will be one.”

What makes wading tricky are rip currents, the concentrated rush of water seaward that occurs after waves wash to the shore, then merge.

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They form rivers in the surf, rushing water beyond the breakers at speeds from 3 to 8 m.p.h. A swimmer stuck in a strong rip current, which averages about 50 feet in width, has no choice but to swim parallel to the shore until he is out of the current’s force. The trouble is, many swimmers panic and try to swim to shore against the rip current, an exhausting and potentially deadly task.

Rip currents are strengthened by holes and troughs left over from the more powerful winter storms. Usually, softer swells from the south fill in the uneven bottom by late June. “But,” said Oceanside lifeguard Matt Stephens, “our sand is still shifting around. There are a lot of holes that remain out there.”

The problems the currents cause are worsened because swimmers don’t know what to look for, said Lt. Brant Bass of San Diego. “You can spot rip currents because they have very little wave action. A lot of people look for the calmest water.” They can also be identified by the dirty, foamier water.

An ocean swell that will bring 4- to 6-foot waves to the area over the weekend will add to the surf’s force, said Wally Cegiel, a San Diego meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Cegiel attributes that to a short-lived but powerful storm off New Zealand last week and Hurricane Elida, which was about 820 miles south-southeast of San Diego late Thursday afternoon.

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San Diego has 60 permanent lifeguards and 110 that work from June 21, the first day of summer, to mid-September, all connected by radio in 36 towers from Ocean Beach to North La Jolla Shores. Each of the 11 districts that the city’s beaches are partitioned into has a 13-foot boat for tougher rescues, but the majority are handled by lifeguards who clip buoys to victims and drag them to the shore.

In Del Mar, lifeguards are patrolling the beach, warning bathers to stay out of areas with rip currents. “Our lifeguards are on their toes for this weekend,” said Grant Larson, community services director.


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