Ocean rescue numbers swell up

A small southwest swell Thursday made the ocean off the Balboa Peninsula deceptively inviting. It caused an undertow that swept dozens of swimmers out to sea and kept the lifeguards there busy on the rescue front.

That day they had to pull more than 30 swimmers out of the water, some of them floundering, others "climbing the ladder" to stay afloat, said Brian O'Rourke, a Newport Beach lifeguard captain who warned those who do not know how to swim well to watch out for the warning signs and flags on the beach.

If the flag is yellow, which means "caution," then make sure to stay close to shore and pay attention to rip currents that can often act like a strong river current and carry directly out to sea. If the flag is red, you might not consider going into the water at all, he said, adding that if the flag is "green," there is little to worry about.

"But even then, a rip tide can occur," said O'Rourke.

And that was the case all day long Thursday, from Corona del Mar to the borders of Huntington Beach, where swimmers, some of them novices, took advantage of the 70-degree temperatures and found themselves suddenly crying out for help to the 30-some lifeguard towers.

"Tower 19 had ten rescues alone," O'Rourke said.

But everything is relative, he said, adding that the 30 rescues on Thursday pale in comparison to the 331 rescues that occurred in a single day in mid-July 2009, when, according to O'Rourke, there was a "very large swell."

"On a daily basis, we have from one to five rescues, and we average about 4,000 rescues a year," he said.

O'Rourke said there are roughly 20 lifeguards on duty these days, but that the number will be ramped up to 60 once the public schools at the Newport-Mesa Unified School District let out for the summer next Friday.

The number will pretty much stay the same between then until Labor Day, he said.

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