A perfectly placid day at the beach; it is the reason I live not far from the pristine shores of the Atlantic, where Long Island narrows, then disappears into the voracious ocean. It is the only sunny day of the July 4th weekend. Under a big floppy sunhat, I am engrossed in a novel, a respite from work. It is hot. The air is infused with the smell of suntan lotion, celebration and sweat. This is summer.
My reverie is interrupted by a commotion at the water’s edge. The lifeguards have mobilized. And not just a few. Two are in the water, crashing through waves with tomato red floats strapped to their bodies. A boat is launched. The other guards run swiftly through the sand and climb the stand that has just been vacated. The lifeguard in the water, a young woman with a mass of dark hair pulled back in a messy bun, plunges headfirst through the underside of a wave while her trusty sidekick, who appears to be more boy than man, follows. Their synchronicity makes them look like dolphins on display.
It is quickly apparent to everyone on the beach that this in no drill. There are a number of people caught in a strangling riptide. They are struggling. I try to count – one… two… I think there are at least four. Wait! There are five. I see a young boy in a green-patterned swim shirt. He is small enough to be mistaken for floating algae and he is paddling hard to mount the wave. His dad is struggling to get to him, waving at the guards. I watch with horror as he goes under again. I am sure I can actually see the fear in his eyes beneath the clear water as the sun hits the wave. The beach is suddenly very quiet. People move from their chairs and towels to the water’s edge. Eyes wide, hands covering mouths, we are all focused on the distance between the lifeguard and the boy. Swim, I think. Swim, I say out loud, urging her on.
How does she gauge the distance between herself and the boy from within the water? How does she keep her eye on the mark while swimming against the current, as they all drift west? It is a terrifying display of courage and daring. It is both overwhelming and thrilling, as I believe she will get to him in time. She has been trained for this.
I watch a yellow towrope spool out behind her. There are three strong male guards on the shore, the rope coursing through their palms, feeding it into the water as she tries to close the distance between herself and the boy. The last guard has the cord wrapped around his torso. I can tell the strength of the current by how deeply it cuts into his flesh.
Beyond the breaking waves, a guard in a kayak paddles hard, flanking the distressed swimmers. A huge wave is cresting behind him. The people on the beach take a collective breath in and hold it. We see what they cannot. It is going to curl right over the heads of the boy, his dad, and the others caught in the clutch of the riptide.
The wave stretches blue-gray satin toward the sky, its ragged edge glistening. The guard in the kayak must feel the swell in his body. He pivots, his muscles ripple, and he navigates through just in time. But the wave crashes down on the boy, still yards from the lifeguard. For several very long seconds, no one moves. The moment is frozen, as are we, the spectators of potential disaster. Our chests hurt with the air we are still holding inside, waiting.
The water recedes and the guard emerges from beneath with the boy on her back, clinging to her shoulders. There is an audible release of breath as her strong arms stroke towards the shore, the towrope guiding her in. Several other guards are there to meet her and take the boy. He is not hurt. He turns and looks out to the water, regards it coolly. Does he understand how close he has come? His father follows on his own accord; he is breathing hard. The relief on his face as he walks through the wet sand to his son is as evident as his exhaustion. He puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder, pulls him close. He nods at the lifeguards, raises a hand in gratitude.
But there is no time for the guards to rehash the rescue. There are still people in the water, other guards battling the current. One by one, three people are extricated from the riptide. One young woman has her arms around the guard’s neck, her legs scissored into a lock across his hips. The water is only knee-high, but she cannot let go. The lifeguard gently untangles her, sets her on the sand and reassures her that she is safe.
I want to applaud as the last person emerges from the ocean. I look around. Nobody else feels the urge to clap for the daring troop of lifeguards. People weave their way between the blankets and umbrellas to their own encampment. They will tell the story over barbeque grills and restaurant tables that night. They will recount the bravery of the guards and that moment when no one was quite sure of the outcome.
I am sure this scene occurs many times during the summer but I am not sure how many of us express our appreciation. So this is my shout-out to you, Hampton Lifeguards. You protect us- all of us: the over powered, the surprised, the drunks who are too far gone to know better, and even the idiots out beyond their capabilities. You watch over our children, the flesh of our heritage. I put my hands together and applaud you. You are brave, diligent, courageous and beautiful to look at. You keep us safe. Thank you. We should all thank you. I hope you can hear me clapping.