Big beach crowds and a spike in rip currents kept L.A. County lifeguards busy in 2014
By Gary Walker
Los Angeles County lifeguards set a new annual record for ocean rescues in 2014, with unusually warm weather drawing large crowds to L.A.-area beaches and an increase in erosion-driven rip currents catching swimmers off-guard.
Lifeguards had made 14,523 ocean rescues this year as of Christmas Day, shattering the previous record of 14,097 ocean rescues in 1997, according to county statistics.
More than a third of those rescues occurred on Westside beaches: 2,549 at Venice Beach, 2,354 along the Santa Monica coastline and 756 at Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey.
Ocean rescues are defined as a lifeguard physically moving a victim out of a dangerous situation in the water to a safe area using any form of rescue equipment.
“At least 80% of our ocean rescues are caused by rip currents. But there are a variety of other specialty rescues that happen less frequently, such as people falling off rocks or jetties into the ocean with clothes on or a victim panicking in the surf’s impact zone from waves crashing on them,” said A.J. Lester, a spokesman for the L.A. County Fire Department’s Lifeguard Division.
Acting Chief Lifeguard Steven Mosley said a great deal of erosion occurred along many of the county’s beaches due to a high frequency of larger-than-normal surf this year, explaining that the erosion created what are known as “inshore holes” up and down the coast.
“The combination of consistent surf and inshore holes caused rip currents to form more frequently along our coast,” Mosley said.
Los Angeles County Lifeguard Section Chief Christine Linkletter said that the combination of those frequent large swells with consistently warm weather luring lots of people to the beach drove this year’s spike in distressed swimmers.
“We attribute a lot of the high number of rescues to a perfect storm of great weather and superwarm water and several huge summer swells. Basically we’ve had an endless summer since March. We really didn’t have a winter, and the water is still warm,” Linkletter said.
Los Angeles County beaches received an estimated 73.4 million visits this year.
In addition to the unusual frequency of rip currents, Lester cited the rescues of six kayakers and four paddleboarders who were blown out to sea near Malibu by Santa Ana winds and a shark attack near the Manhattan Beach Pier in July among the incidents that kept the county’s lifeguards busy from the beginning of spring until practically the end of the year.
Lester also noted the series of lightning strikes at Venice Beach on July 26 that killed 20-year-old Santa Monica college student Nick Fagnano and injured 13 others. As many as 15 lifeguard companies were on the scene that day.
The rescues continued last week, with lifeguards making 22 ocean rescues on Dec. 23, including one at Dockweiler.