Riding to the Rescue : Safety: Area lifeguards learn how to maneuver new ‘personal watercraft’ to more rapidly reach victims.


They are a familiar sight on Orange County’s beaches: lifeguards in their trademark red shorts watching the shoreline from their towers, rolling by in Jeeps or patrolling the waves in shallow boats, warning errant swimmers not to stray too far from land.

But county lifeguards are adding a new tool to their rescue repertoire: “personal watercraft.”

In a three-day training program that ends today, 23 lifeguards from Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Lake Mission Viejo--plus a visiting crew from Kill Devil Hills, N.C.--braved the chilly water to learn the fine points of operating Yamaha WaveRunners as rescue vehicles.


The craft, which can carry two rescuers but can be operated by a solo rescuer if necessary, are a recent addition to the equipment that lifeguards use to mount rescues, Newport Beach Marine Safety Lt. Eric Bauer said.

The lifeguards praise the speed and mobility of the personal craft.

They are especially enthusiastic about the sled that trails behind, giving rescuers a platform on which to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation or begin other lifesaving measures almost as soon as they reach a victim.

“It’s an easy, one-person launch; they’re fast and can operate in very shallow water,” Bauer said. “And since they have no propeller, it reduces the danger to the victim.”

“I hope we get some of these soon,” said James Griffin, a former U.S. Navy rescue swimmer who now works in Kill Devil Hills.

The watershed event that prompted use of the device was the tragic death of 15-year-old Adam Bischoff, who drowned in the Los Angeles River after torrential rains in February, 1992, flooded the river in the San Fernando Valley.

Rescuers tried every technique they knew but were unable to save Bischoff, who had ridden his bicycle near the edge of a channel and fallen in.


If Adam had been able to catch any of the ropes that rescuers threw to him as 30-m.p.h. currents swept him downstream, the drag on the line would have been 3,200 pounds or more--enough to easily sweep the person throwing the rope into the water with him, watercraft rescue instructor Kerry Smith told his students.

While there are no guarantees in emergencies, lifeguards believe that having the watercraft could prevent such deaths. Los Angeles County emergency service agencies began using the craft about a year after Adam’s death.

The personal watercraft are a boon to swift-water rescues on rivers and in the ocean, Bauer said, because their 40- to 50-m.p.h. top end lets them keep up with the current. Rescuers can speed alongside victims, pull them onto the “rescue sled”--a boogie board-type platform towed behind the watercraft--and carry them to safety.

In coastal Orange County, the watercraft will be primarily used on the rivers and creeks that feed into the ocean.

Newport Beach is training its eight permanent lifeguards to use the devices to back up fire department rescue crews for storm season rescues in the Santa Ana River and San Diego Creek Channel.

Bauer said that during the rainy season, one designated lifeguard is on call and, under severe storm alerts, may take the craft home overnight to make getting to a rescue site faster.


Newport Beach lifeguards will also be trained to use the craft for multiple rescues in case of an air crash into the ocean or Newport Bay.

“We plan to incorporate them into air crash scenarios,” Bauer said. “We will be developing a plan for (John Wayne) airport over the next six months.”

But Newport Beach’s two WaveRunners, which look like snowmobiles for the water, made their debut in the water last summer.

Newport Beach and Huntington Beach each have two of the watercraft, donated to both cities by local dealers. Other cities hope to work out similar arrangements through a grant program that Yamaha has for public agencies.

“We had one of the primary rescue boats break down late last summer, and we incorporated (the personal craft) into our rescue operations for the last two weeks of summer,” Bauer said. “We don’t anticipate it being a primary rescue craft, but we may find out different.”

Visiting lifeguards from Kill Devil Hills said they have no rivers or streams to contend with but do confront severe rip currents in the Atlantic Ocean--which has a steeper shoreline than West Coast beaches--that suck swimmers under the water, sometimes in droves.


“We had a problem a year ago, what we called Black Sunday. We had 70 or 80 swimmers caught in the rips,” Kill Devil Hills lifeguard Mike Hurd said.

He said lifeguards can rescue the victims much faster and more efficiently with watercraft than by swimming into the waves with a hand-held buoy.

Newport Beach got its Wave-Runners last summer as a donation from Champion Motorcycles and the manufacturer. This week’s training classes were funded by the Personal Watercraft Industry Assn. and the manufacturer.

“Joint training opportunities like this have been very important,” Bauer said. “Contrary to popular belief, we are trying to do more with less money.”