By 6 p.m. June 23, the sun had started to descend and most beachgoers had left in search of dinner.
A few blocks away at the 12th Street Beach Patrol headquarters, Ocean City lifeguards were settling into their after-hours shift when they got a 911 call: Four swimmers were in distress on the Ninth Street beach.
“We had four individuals caught in a rip current near the rocks,” said lifeguard Joe Masters, a 10-year veteran of the Ocean City Beach Patrol. The Somers Point resident and three others grabbed their gear and a watercraft and headed back to the beach.
Three of them swam out into the ocean, where Masters, 25, picked them up on a personal watercraft and brought them to the shore. All four victims were safe. The city’s “Rapid Response Team,” in its first year, had worked.
There have been numerous after-hours rescues at the Ninth Street beach, which sits in the shadow of the Ocean City Music Pier, Beach Patrol Operations Chief Tom Mullineaux said.
Since the start of extended guarded swimming hours this season, Ocean City lifeguards have handled nine incidents and rescued 16 swimmers over the past month.
The scariest part after hours, Masters said, is that the Beach Patrol is usually only working with about four lifeguards until additional emergency responders arrive.
“Four victims can turn into 10 victims very quickly because you don’t have guards to pull crowds out of the water. If there are rip currents, they can shift and take more people out to sea with it,” he said.
Some of the region’s largest beach patrols — Atlantic City, Long Beach Township and Ocean City — are in various stages of adapting to the risky practice of after-hours swimming. Beaches in Ocean City have been guarded after hours for about 10 years, Atlantic City beaches since 1999, and now the Long Beach Township Beach Patrol will follow the trend with one beach at 68th Street staffed with lifeguards until 8 p.m.
The Atlantic City Beach Patrol has had 37 after-hours swimming rescues since Memorial Day weekend and the start of their evening patrols, Chief Rod Aluise said.
Beaches are guarded until 8 p.m. at Kentucky and Albany avenues, with one officer at each unit and as many as five lifeguards stationed at those locations depending on conditions.
The Long Beach Township Beach Patrol has not responded to any rescue calls since the beginning of the summer and after starting guarded after-hours swimming at the 68th Street beach, Capt. Don Myers said.
The Ocean City Beach Patrol — in response to the increase in after-hours rescues — established a “Rapid Response Team” made up of four lifeguards who are stationed at the 12th Street headquarters and will respond to emergencies Sunday through Thursday until 8 p.m.
Lifeguard patrol hours have also been extended until 8 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and holidays at Eighth, Ninth and 12th Streets.
“The fatal incidents this summer and local incidents have propelled us into continuing the extended hours. Typically, we don’t start extended hours until later in July, but this year we started a few weeks earlier,” Mullineaux said.
Last month, 10-year-old Khitan Devine, of Philadelphia, drowned after getting caught in a rip current while swimming off the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard beach about 7 p.m. with his father and younger sister. Devine’s body was later recovered in Margate. Lifeguards left the beach there at 6 p.m.
Also last month, two men’s bodies were recovered in Seaside Park, Ocean County, and Asbury Park, Monmouth County, after they drowned while swimming in the water off the two shore towns.
Seaside Park lifeguards had not started working for the summer, and lifeguards in Asbury Park had finished patrols for the day when the other man drowned.
In Long Beach Township, Mayor Joseph Mancini announced earlier this month that the Beach Patrol would have a lifeguard on duty until 8 p.m. daily at 68th Street in the Brant Beach section of the township.
“These drowning incidents look like a pretty big problem up and down the coast. We need to be proactive,” Mancini said.
“I think people underestimate the ocean a lot,” Masters said. “Whether we’re here working or not, once you get out there the victims are not thinking about anything else other than surviving.”
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