It’s a brisk spring day at Kitty Hawk beach. Several swimmers in black wetsuits plunge into the 67-degree water of the Atlantic Ocean.

A crowd gathers as an orange and white U.S. Coast Guard helicopter whirls over the beach and flies out 700 yards beyond the shore.

The helicopter hovers near a boat and some swimmers. Then a Coast Guard flight mechanic lowers a stainless steel rescue basket into the choppy waters.

With the surf surging four to five feet, a swimmer tows a man toward the helicopter and lifts him into the basket.

Within a few seconds, the basket with the man is lifted up to the helicopter door.

Fortunately, the man is not hurt. He is just participating in a practice mission for Kitty Hawk Ocean Rescue that is the first to include the Coast Guard.

“The training is as good as you can get,” says Cole Yeatts, ocean rescue director of the Kitty Hawk Fire Department. “It teaches the lifeguards about hazards of the water when conditions are bad. It also reinforces everything they have learned.”

In the middle of the ocean, the helicopter’s rotorhead generates winds from 70 to 100 knots and so much spray that the swimmers have trouble breathing. They use their hands to create air pockets.

During the exercise, lifeguards practice being victims and rescuers. Each one jumps off the boat and swims toward the helicopter and then assists with a rescue.

“I was pleasantly surprised that all the Kitty Hawk lifeguards were in such good swimming condition,” says Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Gerald Hoover.

The joint training also benefits the Coast Guard crew.

“It helps us to swim in the surf,” says Hoover. “We like to be well-rounded.”

The Coast Guard exercise is the culmination of 96 hours of training for the Kitty Hawk lifeguards, which includes biology lessons on sea creatures as well as buoy drills in the breaking surf.

“The Coast Guard exercise was the highlight of our training,” says lifeguard Rebecca Harris. “It was so cool. I had never been on a helicopter before. It was incredible being lifted up.”

Across the Outer Banks, lifeguards have to be prepared for a variety of emergencies — from swimmers in distress near the shore to boaters in trouble up to 200 yards offshore.

“Lifeguards have to deal with whatever happens,” says Yeatts. “The ocean can be as sweet as a loving mother or as vicious as a rabid dog. A lot of people fail to realize the real dangers.”

Because of the treacherous waters along the Outer Banks, Kitty Hawk ocean rescuers have to be in top physical shape, including swimming 500 meters in 10 minutes, and have emergency training.

“I look for more than being a first responder,” says Yeatts. “Lifeguards need a background in emergency services and training in how to deal with a crisis. I look for people in their 20s. The mean age for our lifeguards is 30. Our lifeguards have an average of seven years of ocean rescue experience.”

Rip Current

Ocean rescuers also have to learn how to spot rip currents, which occur along the ocean shoreline as well as the Great Lakes, explains North Carolina Sea Grant coastal erosion specialist Spencer Rogers. Rip currents are created when water rushes out to the sea in a narrow path. Often they form in a break in a nearshore sandbar, or near a groin, jetty or pier.

Rip currents rank as the number one cause of rescues, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association. In 2000, lifeguards across the U.S. made more than 22,668 rescues because of rip currents. In North Carolina, there were an estimated seven rip current fatalities in 2001, according to the National Weather Service. That total may not include rescues by other beachgoers, police and rescue squads.

To ensure safety at North Carolina’s beaches, North Carolina Sea Grant and the National Weather Service joined with local communities last year to expand a rip current public awareness campaign. Through the partnership, more than 500 permanent rip current awareness signs were placed at beach parking lots, access sites, crossovers and lifeguard stands along the state’s ocean beaches.

Swimming parallel to shore — rather than fighting the rip current — is a focus of the educational efforts. Most trouble spots are less than 30 feet wide.

In 2001, North Carolina offices of the National Weather Service (NWS) began offering daily forecasts for rip current potential, a service patterned after a forecast scale developed in Florida through the work of NWS, local lifeguards and university researchers.

“If there is a rip current, our lifeguards need to know where it is,” says Yeatts. “When the surf is the biggest on red flag days, our people are out there training.”

Along the Kitty Hawk beach, a sandbar stretches the entire length of the beach and has fixed rip currents, according to Yeatts.

“We give nonstop education about rip currents,” he says of lifeguard chats with beachgoers. “We do it every day and all day long. Education is the best method of rescues.”

Yeatts says the biggest rip that he has seen was in 1996 when the current spread 150 feet wide.

The second highest cause of ocean rescue accidents is rough surf, according to the lifesaving association.

Yeatts says that he sees a lot of spinal injuries from playing in shallow water or inshore breaks. “You shouldn’t body surf or surf in inshore breaks,” he adds.

Drownings also can occur on calm days when a “west wind is blowing, and the ocean looks like a lake,” says Yeatts.

“Everybody gets a false sense of security, and they fail to realize that a west wind can blow them out to sea,” he says. “I have had to rescue people who were on rafts and could not get back in.”

Medical Emergency

Ocean rescue staffs also respond to a lot of medical emergencies — from cardiac arrest to heat exhaustion.
Jet skis and buoys have become standard rescue equipment along the Outer Banks. Ocean rescue services also use trucks equipped with gas supplies, backboards, marking floats, a global position system and other devices.

“Kitty Hawk Ocean Rescue just developed a rescue board for standup jet skis,” says Yeatts. “The jet ski is a great piece of rescue equipment.”

For rescues farther out, or to search for bodies, the Coast Guard assists by bringing a boat, airplane or helicopter.

“The helicopter is used for 600 miles out,” says Hoover. “We have flown all the way from Elizabeth City to Bermuda.”

In 2002, the Coast Guard made between 400 and 500 rescue calls along the Outer Banks, according to Hoover.

Aviation survival training is provided at the Coast Guard station in Elizabeth City.

“The wait to get in rescue training at Elizabeth City is about 24 months,” says Hoover. “The average individual is in the Coast Guard three to four years before getting in rescue training.”

To start rescue training, Coast Guard technicians are sent to an air station where they learn everything from driving a fuel truck to how to approach an aircraft.

After that, they spend 17 weeks at the Aviation Survival Technical Training Center in Elizabeth City.

In the first phase of the training, the technicians learn basic lifesaving techniques, including underwater training.

“We teach students to save themselves,” says Senior Chief Brad Torrens. “It is like underwater judo. If you were in the water and someone comes from behind and grabs your head, you have to use pressure points, leverage with arms and brute force to take control of the survivor.”

The technicians also undergo a lot of physical fitness training, including towing each other while outfitted in a mask, fin, snorkel and rescue harness. In addition, they run and do push-ups and chin-ups.

In the second phase, they actually practice rescue attempts, including placing victims in rescue baskets.

For the last phase, the Coast Guard rescuers learn how to disentangle a victim from a parachute and about other multi-rescue scenarios.

“In one drill, they have to rescue six people one after the other in 30 minutes,” says Torrens. “All the drills are derived from actual search and rescue efforts by the Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmers. The school is one of the most physically challenging schools in the military.”

Lifesaving efforts began in the U.S. in the early 1700s when dories were launched from shore to save victims of shipwrecks.

During the late 1800s, the U.S. Lifesaving Service built seven stations along the Outer Banks. All told, 29 stations were built along the North Carolina coast, including the Pea Island station on the northern Outer Banks — which had the only all African-American crew.

Like other emergency responders, the lifesavers worked long hours, with daily drills and foot patrols throughout the night. However, when someone cried “ship ashore,” the boredom ended. The rescuers used breeches buoys and lifeboats to bring the crew and passengers to shore. Throughout the U.S., the lifesavers saved more than 178,000 people from 1878 to 1914.

Later, the Lifesaving Service became the modern day Coast Guard, while a new type of lifeguard emerged along the beaches.

Unlike the pool environments — which are virtually identical — open water beaches and their related hazards vary dramatically from place to place. Crowd conditions, water currents, dangerous sea creatures, weather and many other factors contribute to these variations.

“Every beach has its own personality — energy, current pattern and beach slope,” says Jim McCloy, associate vice president of research and academic affairs at Texas A&M University at Galveston and former Texas Sea Grant researcher. “Beaches also have their own culture.”

Along the Outer Banks, many surfers congregate at the beaches.

Because of the rough surf, Outer Banks beaches — from Corolla to Hatteras Island — have beach rescue services in each municipality. From Memorial Day to the end of September, lifeguards sit in stands and also patrol the beaches in all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).

“Ten years ago, there were probably half as many lifeguards as there are now in Dare and Currituck counties,” says Sandy Sanderson, Dare County’s emergency management director. “The Outer Banks has taken the lead in North in innovative, proactive lifeguard services. The town of Nags Head was the first in the country in 1975 to use jet skis in formal rescue operations. They were also the first to incorporate an ATV beach patrol operation in 1979.”

On a typical day, a lifeguard’s work isn’t as glamorous as on the old television series “Baywatch,” according to Yeatts.

“We don’t have drownings every day,” he says. “It is real life and real emergencies.”

At Kill Devils Hills, the lifeguards first get together for a briefing on the water temperature and surf. Then, they head for the beach where they check out the town’s rescue equipment and umbrellas. All told, the town of Kill Devils Hills has 17 lifeguard stands, four patrolling ATVs and two trucks.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Kill Devil Hills lifeguards arrive at the beach early for physical training — from swimming and running to line pull drills and other exercises.

Mirek Dabrowski, owner of Surf Rescue that contracts lifeguard services for the town of Duck, says the hardest part of being a lifeguard is being “out in the sun all day and dealing with different weather conditions.”

By the end of one summer season, the first-year lifeguards have matured a lot because of the enormous responsibility of the job, according to Tim Morrison, Kill Devil Hills ocean rescue support director. “They also meet people from all over the country and develop a great network,” adds Morrison. “It’s a great job.”

Despite the intense training and sophisticated equipment, Yeatts says lifesaving is still the rescuer versus the ocean.

“It is so pure — fins, buoys and saving peoples lives,” he adds.

This article was published in the Spring 2003 issue of Coastwatch. 

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