Hitting the beach? Tips to keep your family safe
ASBURY PARK, N.J. — A few years ago Gene Hession, one of New Jersey’s leading experts on lifeguarding and beach safety, conducted an interesting experiment. He put Long Branch’s best-swimming lifeguard into a rip current — with a rescue team waiting nearby, of course — to see if he could swim to the shore.
“He couldn’t; not even close,” Hession recalled. “He waited until it dissipated and swam parallel to the shore and then it was no problem.”
That lifeguard was Connor Jaeger, a Fair Haven, N.J., native who last summer won the Olympic silver medal in the men’s 1,500-meter freestyle.
If one of the world’s best swimmers had no chance against a rip current, nobody does.
“Rip currents are the number one risk at oceanfront beaches,” said Hession, who is president of the Monmouth County chapter of the United States Lifesaving Association. “There’s a lot of myths surrounding rip currents. You hear people say, ‘watch out for the undertow’ or they’ll call it a riptide. Tide has nothing to do with it. If there’s waves, there’s going to be rip currents.”
A rip current is a strong, narrow channel of fast-moving water that moves directly away from the shore. They are prevalent along the East Coast and come and go without warning.
“From an early age kids should be taught if they get caught in a rip current, they should signal to a lifeguard, don’t panic, tread water, and eventually the current will dissipate,” Hession said. “Then swim parallel to the shore.”
Here are more beach safety tips from Hession, a longtime lifeguard instructor based in Long Branch.
Guidelines for ocean swimming
“As a general guideline the U.S. Lifesaving Association basically says that until you can do a freestyle stroke for 15 minutes continuously, you should be cautious about swimming in the ocean,” Hession said.
New Jersey’s beaches us a color-coded flag system to indicate water safety: red (no swimming allowed), yellow (swim with extra caution) and green (conditions are safe).
“Families should be discouraged from setting up their blankets and umbrellas near jetties,” Hession said. “Those are notorious sites for where rip currents occur. They should swim directly in front of the lifeguards if possible.”
And if there are no lifeguards, don’t swim at all.
Advice for parents: no swimmies
“Parents should always go down to the water with their children, so that they’re supervised properly,” Hession said. “Especially on holidays and weekends when the density of swimmers goes up.”
Swimmies and other child-flotation aids “should be discouraged,” Hession said. “They give kids a false sense of security. They tend to go out farther than they should.”
Also, parents should be mindful of the wind.
“When the wind’s blowing offshore, it’s very easy for kids on rafts to get blown out,” Hession said. “Before they realize it they’re too far out, and if someone panics and slips off the raft it could easily result in a rescue situation.”
Bottom line: “Parents should remember, they’re the most important lifeguard for their kids,” he said.
Trust the lifeguards
Hession said one of the biggest problems each summer is clearing the beaches when lightning is approaching.
“Please listen to the lifeguards in case there is a lightning warning,” Hession said. “The typical family has a bunch of gear to get together and they don’t want to leave the beach.”
In Long Branch, he said, officials are constantly checking marine forecasts, “So we usually have a good indication of when a storm front of lightning and thunder is headed in our direction. We issue warnings to give the public enough time to leave the beach.”
Those warnings sometimes fall on deaf ears.
“People get annoyed, they get frustrated that they have to move their stuff,” Hession said. “But they don’t realize how dangerous lightning can be.”
Lifeguards can be helpful in other ways as well. Two examples:
“Lifeguards are the best source of information on how safe a beach is that particular day,” Hession said. “Go over and ask, where’s the best place for my kid to swim?”
“If the beach is packed and you’re having problems with someone, for example someone in smoking a cigar — which is illegal — and you’re bothered by it, don’t confront that person,” Hession said. “Go to the lifeguard and the lifeguard will resolve the conflict.
Coping with jellyfish
As summer rolls on and the ocean gets warmer, encounters with jellyfish become more common.
“The past few years the water has been pristine,” Hession said. “We’re lucky we don’t have very many jellyfish, but if your child gets stung, go to the lifeguard and ask them to check it out.”
Some species of jellyfish are more toxic than others, but most jellyfish stings hurt for a bit and then wear off with no further trouble.
“Once in a blue moon someone will have an allergic reaction to a sting,” Hession said. “A lifeguard can radio an EMT to check it out.”
Protection from the sun
Hession’s training courses for lifeguards always include a presentation from a dermatologist. The sun can be a beach hazard, too.
“Sunscreen should be applied 30 minutes before you go out onto the beach, so it gets absorbed into your skin,” Hession said.
Dr. Jason Miller, a dermatologist with the Freehold-based CentraState Healthcare System, told the USA TODAY NETWORK last year that creams are preferable to sprays in terms of longevity of protection.
One thing everyone agrees on: keep the sunscreen bottle handy.
“If you’re going into the water or you’re perspiring, it should be reapplied several times throughout the day,” Hession said. “One application is not sufficient.”
Follow Jerry Carino on Twitter: @jnhoopshaven