Dangerous surf and defiant swimmers: 2021 'most challenging' season yet for South Walton lifeguards

Sierra Rains
Northwest Florida Daily News

The 2021 beach safety season broke several records, making it the “most challenging” year yet for South Walton lifeguards.

The season not only brought a record number of rough surf days, but more people were on the beaches than ever. Meanwhile, unparalleled staffing shortages spread lifeguards thin as they tried to keep watch over swimmers across 26 miles of beach.

“It was the most challenging year that we’ve had, but it was also one of the most successful because there’s the old sports cliche, iron sharpens iron,” said Beach Safety Director David Vaughan. “When you’re put in the most difficult circumstances you find out what you’re made of.”

In other news:More changes coming to Walton beaches? County begins annual look at activities ordinance

In case you missed it:Walton commissioners get recommendations for expanded lifeguard program

Almost half of the season was under dangerous surf conditions

The beach safety season consists of 245 days between March 1 and Oct. 31. The South Walton Fire District flies double-red flags on days when the surf conditions are considered life-threatening, and single red flags on days when only very strong swimmers should enter the water.

A sign at the Miramar Regional Beach Access in southern Walton County displays an explanation of the double-red flag warning of dangerous surf conditions that are serious enough to close the waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the public.

During the 2021 season, there were 41 days of double-red flags and 79 days of single-red flags on South Walton beaches. That’s about 48.97% of the season under dangerous surf and rip current conditions.

“Forty-one completely obliterates the number of double-red flag days we’ve had before,” Vaughan said. “The most previous to this was in 2017, and in that year we had 29 double-red flag days.”

More on beach safety:With dramatic increase in drownings, Walton County uses mobile messaging on beach flags

Vaughan said the SWFD has not changed its standards for flying double-red or single-red flags. Rather, there has been a shifting increase in the amount of storm activity. Several pop-up thunderstorms blowing in from the west whipped up the surf this year.

“The Gulf of Mexico isn’t known to be constantly churned up, but the data doesn’t lie,” Vaughan said. “We just finished our 16th season, and the last five years we’ve just seen more storms rolling through. I don’t know if it’s the new normal, but we had an abnormally rough storm season.”

Swimmers defy double-red flags and four people drown

In years past, lifeguards typically didn’t have to perform many water rescues on double-red flag days. The previous high mark for double-red flag days was the 2017 beach safety season. That year 96 people were rescued from the rough surf.

A total of 158 people were rescued during the 2021 season. That is less than the 207 rescues that were performed last year, but Vaughan said the uptick in rescues on double-red flag days has been concerning.

In April:Lifeguards respond with mass rescue in Miramar Beach, 2 people still in hospital

South Walton Beach Safety Lifeguard Ian Rogers keeps an eye on beachgoers at Ed Walline Park, where surf conditions had prompted lifeguards to fly double red flags.

“We used to have the mindset that when we’re in single reds we’re going to do a lot more water rescues, because when we go to double reds people tend to listen,” Vaughan said. “We’ve thrown that out the window now.”

Double-red flags indicate that it is not only dangerous, but illegal, to enter the Gulf. Still, Vaughan said lifeguards began noticing increasing pushback from the public last year.

South Walton Beach Safety Lifeguards MaKena Kimball and Ian Rogers spot a swimmer in the water under double-red flag conditions at Ed Walline Park earlier this year.

That sentiment appeared to carry into 2021 as lifeguards exhausted their resources trying to keep defiant swimmers from entering the water.

Thousands of contacts were made with people not adhering to the warnings, and four people drowned within the first 45 days of the season while trying to rescue others who could not make it back to shore.

“Every single fatality this year was someone trying to help someone else,” Vaughan said. “That is frustrating because someone is trying to do the right thing and help someone out and they pay with their lives.”

Drowning at Miramar Beach:Texas man drowns in Gulf of Mexico in South Walton, 23 others rescued from rough surf

Roughly five million visitors flock to the area, while job applications drop 

The South Walton Fire District typically has a minimum of 19 to 25 lifeguards on staff, but with record staffing shortages and about five million people visiting the beaches this year, resources were stretched thin.

The record for the number of visitors was about one million people only five years ago.

A South Walton lifeguard keeps watch over swimmers at the Miramar Beach Access on Scenic Gulf Drive earlier this year.

“There were times we had to dip down into the 15 to 19 levels and it was brutal,” said Vaughan, who added that the ideal number of staff is about 33 to 35 people. “We just got spread thin. We had to do more with less.”

Related story:Lifeguards say beachgoers are defying double-red flag warnings at South Walton beaches

The county is planning to bolster the lifeguard program next year by raising wages and creating more career positions. Vaughan said they also plan to invest in lifeguards more by offering additional training so they are able to “handle any situation.”

“The county has given us extra resources to make this a career option so that I can hire benefited, full-time guards, and we’re getting ready to pull the trigger on that,” Vaughan said. “We’ve got to provide the incentive for people to want to do this job because this job is that important to the economy of this area.”

Those who stuck through the 2021 season were able to adjust to the challenges, and Vaughan said he feels confident that “we’re ready for whatever the future brings.”

“It was really challenging, but we also found out what we were made of and that gives us a lot of optimism and excitement for the future," Vaughan said. “We found out that we have some amazing people who are really dedicated to the industry and what it means to be public servants."