Lifeguards are rescuing people along the Huntington Beach coast at about double last year's rate, with unusually warm water luring swimmers unprepared for the ocean's riptides.
Two people have drowned in the last week, including Drean Rucker, a high school All-American from Riverside who was supposed to play football for USC this year.
Lt. Michael Beuerlein, operations head at Huntington City Beach, calls the deaths "sunset drownings" because they occurred after dark.
"The water is so warm and people are staying out in the water later, and the lifeguards go home," he said.
Ocean temperatures have been running 73 to 75 degrees, when normal is 65 to 68, said Mike Brousard, a lifeguard supervisor for Huntington and Bolsa Chica state beaches.
"The last couple of weeks it has just been off the chart," he said.
The hot, humid weather has brought more people to beaches, and the warm water has brought more people into the ocean, resulting in more rescues.
From July 1 through 15, there had been 1,038 rescues at Huntington State Beach alone, Brousard said, nearly half the total for all of 2002.
Brousard said the rescues are on a pace to break the record of 4,880 set in 2001.
Beuerlein has seen a similar jump. Last year, through the first 20 days of July, there were 207 rescues at Huntington City Beach. This year, the total for the same period is 467.
Swimmers who stay in the water after dark, when lifeguards go home, take a greater risk. "It's impractical to staff 30 stations 24 hours a day," said Chief Mark Klosterman, head lifeguard at Laguna Beach. "Where do you draw the limit?"
Manning the towers after dark, however, would not do any good because of the limited visibility, lifeguards said. "By 8:30 p.m., you can't even see the tower next to you, let alone into the water," said Leo Oorts, a lifeguard at Huntington State Beach.
Rucker's drowning Monday occurred not far from Oorts' station. Rucker entered the water about 8 p.m. and was soon in the grip of rip currents, officials said. Rescuers continued searching for him Tuesday, but he is presumed drowned.
On July 15, a 23-year-old bodysurfer drowned off Huntington City Beach after an evening cookout. Off Laguna Beach the next day, about 6 p.m., a 55-year-old surfer suffered a heart attack. His death was not classified as a drowning, officials said.
James Walsh, 17, a high school senior from Chino Hills who was walking along Huntington State Beach, said he never goes into the ocean at night. "If you're out there by yourself, it's going to be dangerous," he said.