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3 Drownings in 2 Weeks Show Dangers of Area’s Coastline, Boating Lakes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forty-two miles of coastline and two great boating lakes make Ventura County a virtual paradise for water enthusiasts, but three drownings in two weeks illustrate the dangers these waters can pose.

Just a small strip of one lake and fewer than half of the beaches are patrolled by lifeguards.

When combined with novice swimmers dipping into the cool waters, the mix can be deadly.

On Friday, 15-year-old Alex Cabrera slipped under the waves at Mandalay Beach in Oxnard while learning to swim with friends. Despite five days of searching, emergency teams have not recovered his body.

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And on July 4, two men died. Glendale father Liborio Dominguez drowned in the relative calm of Lake Piru, and Jack Ledafin, 26, died after being hit by a large wave at Surfers Knoll south of the jetties at Ventura Harbor.

Alex’s death was the fifth drowning this year.

In May, Alex Talili, 35, died after being swept into the surf at a beach south of Mugu Rock. And Carl Moss, 31, drowned while surfing at Silver Strand Beach in January.

Strong winds on Lake Piru often whip up waves that can rock a small boat enough to tip an unsteady fisherman into the water. The lake also holds deep columns of chilly water that can overwhelm people, officials said. Lifeguards do patrol a swim area at the lake three days a week, but many of the problems occur outside this small zone, Ranger Tim Polk said.

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The beaches of Ventura County provide a mix of conditions, and all hold the common dangers of the ocean.

Cool temperatures, large waves and rip currents can all work in concert to rob even the most robust swimmer of energy, said Steve White, Ventura State Beach lifeguard supervisor.

But White said it is not the experienced swimmers or even the thrill-seeking surfers out challenging huge waves who get into trouble. It is the novice swimmers and those inexperienced in the ways of the ocean that get in over their heads.

“Someone will come to the beach, maybe wade out a little, step into a deeper hole or get picked up in a rip current and they begin to panic,” said White, who heads a team of 25 guards.

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Most of more than 7,000 swimmer “contacts” that lifeguards have had along the Ventura beach since June were to warn people of dangerous behavior.

There have been 81 water rescues during that same time, he said.

“Since I’ve been working here in 1981, I am not aware of a single person drowning on any of the beaches we patrol,” White said.

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In the spring, when storms from the west combine with heavy winds, White said, the beach at Marina Park is the most dangerous one in Ventura.

Because of rock jetties positioned to control the flow of sand around the harbor, currents turn the small enclosure at the park into a virtual whirlpool, he said.

The beach south of the harbor between Marina Cove Beach and McGrath State Beach is considered dangerous partly because it has no lifeguards, White said.

On July 4, Ledafin drowned in that area while struggling against the current and big waves.

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Lifeguards with the California Department of Parks and Recreation patrol McGrath, Marina Cove, San Buenaventura and Emma Wood state beaches.

County lifeguards patrol Silver Strand, Channel Islands Harbor Beach and Hollywood Beach along the Oxnard coast. And Port Hueneme lifeguards patrol that city’s beach.

State lifeguards also patrol the south end of the county, including the three beaches in Point Mugu State Park. Those can have large surf in the summer months, lifeguard Norm Chandler said.

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Chandler supervises about 30 lifeguards who patrol south county beaches. On average, the lifeguards rescue about 100 people a year, he said. The last drowning there was in the mid-1980s, he said.

The waves at those beaches--Thornhill Broome, Sycamore Cove and Point Mugu--tend to jack up right at the shoreline and break from top to bottom, often catching beach-goers off guard, Chandler said.

“It’s not that it is more dangerous here, just different,” he said.

Dangerous conditions can happen at almost any beach, he said, when rip currents carry swimmers farther from shore.

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Rip currents--caused when surf is pushed by waves onto the beach and then funnels back into the sea--are the most common contributor to drownings and near drownings, officials said.

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Because it faces south, Hueneme Beach gets some of the biggest surf in summer and is particularly dangerous, said Doug Miser, head lifeguard at Port Hueneme Beach Park.

The deep water canyon off Hueneme Beach contributes to colder water temperatures, making it that much more dangerous, Miser said.

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Although Hueneme lifeguards rescue about 350 swimmers in a typical summer, not one has drowned at the beach in at least the last 10 years, he said.

On Tuesday morning, Miser and other lifeguards searched their beach for the body of Alex Cabrera, who was presumed drowned several miles to the north.

Alex, who was learning to swim, apparently got caught in a rip current. Frightened, he struggled against it, but the effort drained him of energy and he went under, his friends said.

It is a fairly common scenario for drowning victims, Miser said.

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“If you don’t know what’s going on, it’s only natural that when you see yourself being swept away from the beach, you’re going to get scared,” he said.

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Ventura County Beaches

There are 42 miles of coastline in Ventura County. Of the two dozen beaches listed here, about half have lifeguards during the summer months. Depending on the time of year and the weather conditions, each has its own hazards to avoid.

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1. Sycamore Cove Beach

2. Thornhill Broome Beach

3. Point Mugu Beach

4. Ormond Beach

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5. Port Hueneme Beach Park

6. Silver Strand Beach

7. Channel Islands Habor Beach

8. Hollywood Beach

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9. Oxnard State Beach

10. Mandalay County Park

11. McGrath State Beach

12. Marina Cove Beach

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13. Marina Park

14. San Buenaventura State Beach

15. Promenade Park

16. Surfer’s Point

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17. Emma Wood State Beach

18. Solimar Beach

19. Faria Beach County Park

20. Rincon Parkway North

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21. Hobson County Park

22. Oil Piers Beach

23. Mussel Shoals Beach

24. La Conchita Beach

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25. Rincon Beach County Park

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Escaping a Rip Current

Rip currents are commonly created when a large amount of water is funneled by beach topography into narrow channels, then out to sea. A common mistake by swimmers in a rip current is trying to swim straight to shore. The proper way to escape:

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A. Allow current to move you seaward; don’t try to swim against the current, as this can drain your strength.

B. Once the current weakens-normally less than 100 yards from shore-swim parallel to the beach until the rip current disappears.

C. Swim toward the shore, riding incoming waves if possible.


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