OLD ORCHARD BEACH, Maine — Crowded beaches and strong rip currents are making this a memorable — and busy — summer for lifeguards at beaches in southern Maine and New Hampshire.
Lifeguards at Old Orchard Beach had rescued 93 swimmers as of Wednesday, making it the busiest summer in memory for those guarding a 4-mile stretch of beach. It’s the same story at New Hampshire’s busiest beach, where lifeguards have assisted or rescued 75 swimmers at Hampton Beach.
Lifeguards blame winter storms that carved up the ocean floor and redistributed sand, creating rip currents. At the same time, hot, sunny weather has drawn more people to beaches this summer.
“It’s all about the beach erosion. It’s created minirips. Usually we’re sitting around here waiting for hurricane season for things to get busy,” Wes Rhames said Wednesday from his perch on a lifeguard stand overlooking the beach crowded with sunbathers, many under colorful umbrellas.
Rip currents, which account for 80 percent of lifeguard beach rescues, can pull an unsuspecting swimmer out to sea. They’re created by changes in the contour of the sandy bottom.
At Old Orchard, most of the problems this summer are linked to sandbars. Swimmers wading along a sandbar step into a rip current caused when part of the sandbar has washed way.
Those swimmers find themselves in over their heads — literally — and fighting a strong current to boot, said Keith Willett, chief lifeguard at Old Orchard Beach. A week ago, lifeguards rescued two dozen swimmers in a single afternoon because of strong surf and rip currents.
In New Hampshire, erosion of sandbars is causing similar problems on the north side of Hampton Beach, said Alex Valhouli, deputy chief of lifeguards. A swimmer can be wading in 2 feet of water and then step into 12 feet of water because of the unpredictable nature of the sandbars, he said.
At the same time, beaches have been crowded every day of the week because of a weeks-long run of warm temperatures and sunny skies in a region known for fickle weather.
“We can’t remember summers like this as far as the weather. This has been just incredible. It’s been a phenomenal summer, weatherwise,” Valhouli said.
This summer’s balmy weather is in stark contrast to last summer, when Mainers lamented the rainy weather and Old Orchard lifeguards sat through June and July with no rescues. This summer, the number of rescues will easily top 100 before the season ends, Willett said.
At Hampton Beach, there are about 25 rescues in a slower summer, so the 75 assists so far this summer is much higher than normal, Valhouli said.
To save themselves, swimmers caught in rip currents are told not to fight it. Instead, they should swim parallel to the beach to escape the rip, then swim back to shore.
Swimmers can protect themselves by checking with lifeguards about surf conditions and swimming only at locations that are monitored by guards, lifeguards say.
Last year, 117 swimmers drowned at the nation’s beaches, but only 21 deaths happened at beaches where lifeguards were present, said Chris Brewster of the U.S. Lifesaving Association. All told, there were 82,969 reported rescues from 114 reporting agencies, Brewster said.
For all the rescues, it has been a relatively safe summer in Maine with only one fatality. Last month, a woman died after jumping into the water at an unguarded Saco beach to save her grandchild. She saved the child but was unable to make it back to shore. Old Orchard lifeguards pulled her to safety and performed CPR, but she died the next day.
On Wednesday, Old Orchard’s sunbathers seemed unfazed by the rip currents.
“You feel pretty good when you have lifeguards here,” said Mark Baker of Salem, N.H., who was playing ball with his 12-year-old son, Ben, on the beach near Old Orchard’s main lifeguard station. “From what I understand, a lot of beaches don’t even have lifeguards.”