By Megan Sobchuk
Hampton Union, Sunday, June 6, 2003[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
Last weekend, the water at Hampton Beach raised to a frigid 47 degrees, the sun came out and a few brave souls took their first dips of the season. Standing along the ocean's edge in bright red shorts, torpedo-shaped buoys in hand, was this summer's crew of lifeguards.
Their responsibility is to keep a watchful eye on everyone in the water. On Saturday, this was only a few shivering extremists but by midsummer there will be hundreds of swimmers splashing in the surf.
The lifeguard's job doesn't stop at the water's edge. On any given day this summer, 60 parents will lose their children among the thousands of tourists. People with scrapes and cuts, bumps and bruises, and the occasional heat exhaustion will also visit the lifeguard tower. Since May, the team of 40 lifeguards, headed by chief lifeguard Jim Donahue, has been preparing for whatever this summer will bring.
"I'm very happy with our current crew. We've had to struggle in past years to fill positions but last year we had 20 new lifeguards, the largest I can recall, and most have returned this summer," said Donahue. "For the first time in about 10 years we have a waiting list."
The completed crew is one of the best on the Seacoast, said Donahue, who has been lifeguarding for 43 years. It's also one of the best crews with whom he has ever worked. He has watched different combinations of individuals come together each summer. This group is a mixture of veteran guards and people returning from last year; there are only a few rookies.
Tom Mattson, the director of parks and recreation, is in charge of overseeing the lifeguards. He said, "We are very lucky to have the head lifeguards that we have, who help train and hire probably the most qualified crew on the East Coast. They have experience that you can't learn in a summer."
Mattson came on as director after Donahue and has been impressed with al* the lifeguards' abilities to prevent accidents and make sure the water is safe for everybody."
Hampton Beach lifeguards must be American Red Cross certified and complete an intense training course, which includes 3-hour swims and water treading exercises. Each year, the entire crew goes through cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), respiratory distress and first aid refresher training.
This year's crew includes Donahue's son Michael, who like his father has been lifeguarding at the beach since he was 16 years old. After working at Hampton for seven years, Michael says, "Some days it seems like there are more people than water. Through scanning and knowing how much beach you have to watch, it becomes easy to pick out people in distress."
There are also daily 45-minute workouts starting at 9 a.m. This includes a three-mile run up and down the beach. Michael said, "It's a large group but through the workouts every day, you get to know everyone. We're a tight crew." The lifeguards are at their posts by 10 a.m., prepared for a long afternoon of watching the water.
Reading The Water
Many of the skills needed to be a lifeguard can't be taught in a course or in a pool. Over time the lifeguards have learned to read the water and they know the trouble areas.
Donahue explains, "We have areas along the beach that can cause a problem. We call them washouts. These areas vary in intensity from year to year. They kick-in on large surf days and can be dangerous."
So far, this year looks like a good year for beachgoers. The washout spots are less intense than in past years and the lifeguards are posted in front of areas where trouble could easily be created.
The lifeguards keep people from swimming in these areas and from venturing too far out into the ocean. A person who misjudges his or her swimming ability can cause a drowning situation.
Jim Deluca, who has been working beside Donahue as his second in command, said, "People underestimate the water. Their ability in a pool is very different than in the ocean."
Another problem is boogieboards, which can create a false sense of security both for parents and children, who think of them as lifejackets.
Donahue said, "They get caught in the surf and only add to the problem."
The state banned the boards from the beach for a number of years. Venders continued selling them across the boardwalk and people constantly complained after buying and then not being able to use them.
Donahue said, "The state finally caved in and allow use of them at our discretion. If we see someone abusing their privilege, we tell them it's over for the day."
The lifeguards tend to spend a lot of hours each day searching the sand instead of watching the waves. The team deals with missing children and frantic parents all the time.
"Last summer, we had close to 1,000 missing children reports. All of them were eventually found and most of them we found within the first 15 minutes," said Deluca.
The crew has been trained to react to any situation. Missing kids, empty boogieboards, even dealing with dead fish become part of a day's work.
Most people envision their summer days at the beach being spent splashing in the waves. For the men and women who patrol the waters each day, however, "you have to be on your guard all the time," said Harry Brown, who has been working at the beach for the past four years.
"Hampton's unique in that there are thousands of people on any given day," said Brown.
The crowds continue to get larger and even the beach was increased in the 1960s and now spans about 1.5 miles. With so much sand and water, and so many people to watch, these lifeguards have their hands full this summer; but as with every other year, they are ready.
"We've all seen a lot of action over the years," said Donahue, who has saved about 100 people from drowning.
Brown, who has work at other beaches throughout the state said, "The crew is the best I've ever worked with anywhere. They are complete professionals."
On the days that most of us decide to stay home, they still go to work without complaining. Brown said, "There are the cold raw days, too, but when I think of summer and being outdoors, it's got to be the beach."
(For information on how the Hampton Beach lifeguards are keeping the sand safe and what you can do to prevent accidents go to: www.hampton.lifeguards.org)