There’s a whole lot of floundering going on at Ocean Beach. Lifeguards there rescue more swimmers per mile than any beach in California — and maybe the world. Some say that makes the waters of Ocean Beach the most dangerous in the state. Others claim it makes them the safest.
Whatever your perspective, San Diego lifeguards last year pulled 4717 troubled swimmers from 26 miles of local ocean and bay shoreline. Although Ocean Beach is less than three-quarters of a mile long and is far from being the biggest or the busiest local coastal town, half of these rescues took place there. Mission Beach was next with 547 saves.
Officials blame the rip tides for the intense level of aquatic distress. They say Ocean Beach has an unusual combination of natural and manmade hazards capable of sucking swimmers far into the ocean before they’re aware of the danger. “They have a pier in Ocean Beach, and wherever there’s a pier, automatically you have rip currents,” said Captain Chris Brewster, head of the San Diego lifeguards. “Also, any kind of jetty contributes to rip currents, and Ocean Beach has three of them. In addition, there are some unusual bottom conditions that create really good surf but hazardous swimming.”
In contrast to Australia or the East Coast, California officials are reluctant to close beaches during high surf or heavy rip currents. Said Brewster, “Outside the West Coast, if they have a place that is at all hazardous, they tend to just close it. But the prevalence of rip currents out here is such that if we did that, on any one day, we might have 25 to 50 percent of the beach areas closed. As a result, the way we handle it on the West Coast is to have more lifeguards to rescue people when they have these problems.”
Lifeguards say only Huntington and Zuma beaches have comparable numbers of endangered swimmers. But officials at those Los Angeles-area seaside communities were surprised – and maybe a little disappointed — to find that Ocean Beach, although much smaller and less crowded, is also quite a bit busier. Huntington Beach, for example, attracted four million people to its three-mile coast last year. That’s twice as many people and four times the sandy area of Ocean Beach. “We are the busiest and most crowded beach on the West Coast,” claimed Michael Baumgartner, a Huntington lifeguard. “We have more rescues per mile than anywhere in the world.”
Wrong. And it’s not even close. Last year, 2500 people were yanked from the Huntington surf. Per mile, Ocean Beach is three times busier. The story is the same at Zuma and Santa Monica beaches, two of L.A.’s most crowded beaches. Last year, almost six million people went to Zuma, but only 1058 needed to be rescued. . In Santa Monica, more than ten million jammed into 3.1 miles of sand, and lifeguards helped 973. By Ocean Beach standards, that’s vacation duty. “I used to be a lifeguard down there,” said Lieutenant James Richards, who patrols Zuma Beach for the Los Angeles County lifeguard service. “And Ocean Beach gets pretty radical.”
Some in Ocean Beach reject the label of California’s most dangerous beach. They say that the high number of rescues is an indication of alert lifeguards and safe waters. “The guards in Ocean Beach are really good,” said Fred Wanke, president of the Peninsula Chamber of Commerce and a longtime surfer. “If they see someone even in a little bit of trouble, they are out there in an instant. Everyone is really aware of the conditions and keeps a close watch. Heck, we even had a guy who owns the restaurant on the pier, Dan Auld, who jumped into the water and made some heroic rescues. If anything, Ocean Beach is safer.”
Bolstering Wanke’s claim, lifeguards say that drownings of recreational swimmers at Ocean Beach are rare, with only one reported in the last three years. Brewster also denies that Ocean Beach bathers are in some way more irresponsible than other swimmers. “We may have a few more military than there are at La Jolla Shores, but the Ocean Beach crowd is pretty typical.” Nor is he saying Ocean Beach is too dangerous for swimming. “I don’t like to use the word dangerous about Ocean Beach,” Brewster said. “Ocean conditions are extraordinarily hazardous there, relative to the other beaches where we lifeguard. And people definitely need to be aware of that.”