Volunteers to ‘Drown-Proof’ Town

Water safety classes to begin in third grade townwide as summer approaches

By Russell Drumm

Morgan McGivern
Members of East Hampton’s Volunteer Ocean Rescue Squad took part in some cold-water training at Atlantic Avenue Beach in Amagansett last month.(5/8/200 “Drown-proof the town.” The goal sounds daunting, and yet 40 volunteer ocean rescuers, in cooperation with East Hampton Town lifeguards, police, and the Marine Patrol, as well as a school program designed to teach kids how to swim and respect the ocean’s power, have joined forces to keep people afloat.

There was a time when East Hamptoners grew up surrounded by water but without the ability to swim, when baymen spent their lives on the water, but not in it. This has changed with the popularity of water sports, but a great number of people still lack respect for the ocean’s power and enter beaches, bays, and boats without a basic understanding of the dangers.

Lifeguards witness the tragic results on a regular basis. For this reason, a two-pronged approach to drown-proofing has been developed starting in 2003, the first being more comprehensive coverage of the town’s beaches from Wainscott to Montauk, including a growing number of areas outside the lifeguard’s designated bathing beaches.

The Volunteer Ocean Rescue Squad operates from the former Dory Rescue Squad barn on Atlantic Avenue in Amagansett and from the Montauk Playhouse. The swimmers, who must pass a rigorous Suffolk Health Department ocean certification test, are scrambled by way of the regular 911 emergency service calls to this area’s police dispatcher. Their numbers double from 20 to 40 during the summer with the return of college members.

During the summer months, a 911 call from a person who sees a swimmer, surfer, kite surfer, windsurfer, or boater in trouble will have rescuers and their Jet Ski-type watercraft responding directly to the scene within minutes. During the winter months when cold water makes any rescue far more dangerous, members assemble as a unit before acting.

Squad members stress that people should never feel hesitant or embarrassed about calling 911 when they think someone is in trouble. To date, the squad has managed to be on scene in less than five minutes on average.

The second prong of East Hampton’s drown-proofing efforts would seem to be a no-brainer, that is, a program to teach kids how to swim and to respect the water from an early age.

Swimming classes are now offered at schools here beginning in the third grade. Swim strokes and a safety sense are honed through the middle school years, when students can get their first exposure in gym class and then enter a junior lifeguard phase if they want to, or join a swim club, or earn a place on the Hurricanes competitive swim team. Girls may opt for the Sychro Swans synchronized swimming team. A job as an East Hampton Town lifeguard is always a future possibility.

John Ryan Jr. is a teacher at the East Hampton Middle School, chief of the town’s ocean lifeguards, co-founder with his father of the junior lifeguard program, and the first captain of the town’s volunteer ocean rescue squad. Through his efforts, middle school students starting in the third grade are offered a complete unit of physical education. In order to extend their gym time, the swimmers forgo half their lunch period for the trek to the Y.M.C.A. East Hampton RECenter swimming pool for instruction.

“It gives them 60 minutes to get to the RECenter. They have 10 sessions,” Mr. Ryan said the other day. The aquatic gym class is now offered to students from the Springs School and from Pierson Middle School in Sag Harbor. The Amagansett School will be taking part, and a satellite Y.M.C.A. program is being set up at the Gurney’s Inn pool so that Montauk School students can participate. Progress reports are sent home so that parents are aware of their children’s abilities.

Mr. Ryan said that at this time of year, kids in the junior lifeguard program (ages 9 to 14) start training at the Y. “We start them now so when the beach opens they’re more ready.”

Junior lifeguards train during the summer months from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays starting the last weekend in June. The program ends with a tournament in August. Junior guards also compete with their counterparts from other Long Island towns at Jones Beach. A few go on to national competition. Last year, eight East Hampton junior guards competed at Myrtle Beach, S.C. This year the nationals will be held at Santa Monica in California.

“It makes kids aware, not just for themselves, but for the people they swim with,” Mr. Ryan said of East Hampton’s broad-based drown-proofing for kids.

The ocean rescue squad’s safety tips include the following:

• Do not allow anyone to attempt a swimming rescue without taking a flotation device.

• Learn to swim.

• Swim near a lifeguard.

• Never swim alone.

• A nonswimmer should not rely on flotation devices such as Boogie Boards, surfboards, tubes, or rafts.

• If you’re in trouble, wave and shout with one arm up and a closed fist.

• If caught in a rip current, stay calm and swim across the current, parallel to shore, to escape it.

• Do not swim after consuming alcohol or drugs. They impair judgment and can induce panic.

• Never dive into unknown waters or into shallow breaking waves.

• When in a boat always wear a flotation device. If the boat capsizes, stay with it. Keep clothes on to preserve body heat.


John Ryan Jr. is a K38 adjunct instructor