Local surfers, who were recently considered a liability by beach town officials, showed their value to the county this weekend as thou-sands of tourists ventured out in the surf despite red flag warnings.
The combination of beautiful weather, pent up frustration with stay-at-home orders from the governor and the on-coming tropical storm Arthur made for a dangerous mixture that resulted in numerous near-drowning events. According to William Mathias, Ocean Rescue Coordinator with the Emerald Isle Fire Department, his team recorded eleven beach rescues during the weekend just in that town alone.
Fortunately, surfers were also enjoying the ocean swells from the on-coming tropical storm and were in the vicinity to provide assistance. In five of the distress calls nearby surfers provided assistance to distressed swimmers.
But the distressed swimmers were not the only beneficiaries of the assistance; so were the lifeguards who were aided by the volunteer rescuers. This assistance prevented the paid lifeguards from being overwhelmed in the process of providing needed assistance.
In early April beach town mayors opened the beaches for walkers and runners but prohibited any access to the ocean for swimming, kayaking, paddle-boarding or surfing, arguing that these activities would create the need for possible beach rescues. Beach town officials were concerned that beach rescues would distract needed personnel who were at the time focused on pandemic responsibilities and in the process possibly expose rescue personnel to additional threats to their health.
A local group of surfers immediately raised their own red flag, arguing that they should not be restricted. They contended that surfing, as well as kayaking and paddle-boarding, is just as healthy and therapeutic as walking or jogging on the beach and that it would not, as the town official contended, create a need for beach rescue efforts.
The surfers maintained that surfing continues through the winter when no lifeguards are on duty and that there have been no incidents requiring rescue of surfers during that period. Additionally, the surfers note that they are by default an informal group of beach rescuers and therefore should be exempt.
The April restrictions on surfing and other water sports that involve flotation devices such as paddle-boards and kayaks stands in stark contrast to this past weekend’s success stories that did much to avoid additional bad publicity for a community that needs to build trust.
Over the past three months the community, the state and the world have focused on the COVID-19 pandemic statistics. It is coincidental that our state was focused on another statistic a year ago - drownings. At the end of May of last year, the county led the nation in surf-zone drownings.
Just as the state and county are worried about pandemic statistics, drowning statistics likewise, pose an image we need to avoid.
The presence of surfers and their history of providing assistance at every opportunity is a testament to their value to the community, let alone to those whom they save. The number of beach rescues this weekend is an indication that despite the best efforts of the towns to warn our visitors, they choose to ignore them. And though we can argue that the victims are to blame, the reality is that our community becomes the focus.
Beach mayors and county officials should review their opinions and value of a group of rescue volunteers who are not only providing a positive image for their sport but also the county. And, in appreciation to the obvious benefit they provide, surfing, and similar water sports should be given special consideration in the future.