Denis McLaughlin spent a beautiful evening relaxing on Ocean City’s unguarded 51st Street beach.
While the blue water was enticing on a warm night, the Rockaway Township native never ventured in — not once.
“I learned my lesson,” he said.
McLaughlin and his daughter were swimming in Long Beach Island 25 years ago when the lifeguards blew their whistles to let everyone know they were leaving for the day. But since it was a nice evening and his family was having fun, they stayed in the water.
“The water was still inviting. And there were other people out there with us,” he said. “But then a big wave came and we got swept into water over our heads.”
McLaughlin’s first thought was to save his daughter, so he swam out to her as a strong rip current pulled both into deeper water farther from shore.
McLaughlin yelled for help and waved his hands over his head, frantically hoping someone would see they were in trouble. Most beachgoers did not notice the disaster taking place. His wife was reading a book on the beach, oblivious to her family’s danger.
Fortunately one person saw McLaughlin and alerted lifeguards who were still stowing gear off the beach. They came racing to help.
McLaughlin was struggling to swim while pushing his daughter ahead of him toward shore. He was just getting his footing on the sand bottom when the lifeguards reached them. By then he was exhausted.
“It was really scary,” he said. “We were OK. But what if I hadn’t gotten my footing?”
McLaughlin’s story is the reason lifeguards warn people never to swim on unguarded beaches.
But it’s still a popular pastime, especially on long summer evenings when the water is refreshing and the beaches are bathed in beautiful evening light.
“It’s pretty perfect. It feels like summer,” said Neil Brunetti, of Ocean City, said while toweling off on the 51st Street beach in Ocean City. A handful of families and surfers were still in the water around 7 p.m.
“There’s a mass exodus here around 5:30 every night. It’s nice to come here in the evening,” he said. “We keep a closer eye on the kids. And we stay close to shore.”
Hanna Gustafsson and Caroline Andre, on vacation from Stockholm, Sweden, said beaches back home typically don’t have lifeguards, so they are used to swimming alone. Swedish schools require mandatory swim lessons for all 8-year-olds, they said.
“It’s beautiful here,” Gustafsson said. “We’re not going in that deep.”
Almost every year, people drown on unguarded beaches in South Jersey. Most of the tragic accidents occur in the evenings after lifeguards have gone home for the day.
Rita Hrycuna, 59, of New Hampshire, died last year after she was pulled to safety while swimming at 7 p.m. on an unguarded Atlantic City beach.
Christian Alfred, 24, of New York, drowned while swimming in the evening off an unguarded beach in Wildwood in 2013. In 2009, two swimmers died while swimming in Hereford Inlet in North Wildwood.
Atlantic City Beach Patrol Chief Steve Downey said off-duty lifeguards rescued five swimmers who got in trouble on two consecutive nights last week on the California Avenue beach, long after guards had left. All five swimmers were OK.
“It’s warm out, so a lot of mainland people come to the beach later in the day,” he said.
The city’s after-hours lifeguard program starts July 1 when the Beach Patrol will guard selected beaches until 7 or 8 p.m. depending on the demand.
“We’ll staff overtime if it calls for it on the Uptown beaches or where the demand is,” he said. “Our official after-hours beach is Kentucky Avenue.”
Rescues are up significantly this year over last year, he said, driven by a combination of strong winds and waves. Already, lifeguards have saved 91 swimmers — 22 more than this time last year, he said.
Lifeguards rescued 1,100 people on Atlantic City beaches last year.
Ocean City sees an estimated 3 million beachgoers every year. The Beach Patrol guards Eighth, Ninth and 12th streets downtown until 8 p.m. during the summer.
“We also have guards at 12th Street with a rapid-response group in case something happens on another beach,” Chief Thomas Mullineaux said.
But that should not encourage anyone to swim on an unguarded beach. Help could be miles away, he said. Ocean City lifeguards rescued about 554 swimmers last year.
For those who insist on swimming after hours, Mullineaux said they should swim with friends, avoid jetties or other structures that could spawn rip currents and stick close to shore.
Wildwood Crest has an after-hours response team. But its job is to react to a crisis, not prevent one, Beach Patrol Chief Bud Johnson said.
Once someone is in trouble, help could be a mile away, he said.
Johnson said a lot of people come to the beach on their first night of vacation in Wildwood Crest.
“I know it’s beautiful in the evening. A lot of people hang around on the beach. But it’s dangerous,” he said. “If they go in deep water, they’re taking a risk.”
Johnson said visitors should be equally cautious at any of South Jersey’s unguarded pools. The Wildwoods see far more drownings in hotel pools than in the ocean.
“If you do want to take a risk, at least go out with other people,” he said.
McLaughlin said he and his daughter never talk about the scary moment they shared so long ago. It’s still too traumatic.
But to this day, she, too, never swims without a lifeguard, he said.