For Long Islanders, the ocean is a playground. We grow up splashing in waves from the Hamptons to the Rockaways, boating, swimming and intimately knowing inlets, bays, ocean and sound. It’s that very familiarity however, that may breed carelessness and lead to danger. While drownings are not an epidemic here, they do occur almost every summer. To find ways to be smarter and safer at the beach, we picked the brains of Jones Beach lifeguards Cary Epstein and Barbara Cronin-Stagnari. They agree that the key to safely enjoying the ocean is to respect its power.
Epstein, 33, from Hewlett, has been guarding those famous shores for years and has seen everything from placid days when he and his fellow guards spend most of their time practicing preventative lifeguarding to days with 25 or more rescues. Jones Beach lifeguards have a reputation for being serious experts. Epstein said it’s because they’re a veteran team with many decades of experience. An excellent swimmer who swims miles in open water to train for Ironman triathlons, Epstein has come to know and respect the seriousness of the water.
“People have a false sense of security,” he said. Fortunately, Jones Beach hasn’t seen a fatal drowning in many years, but other area beaches haven’t fared as well. The biggest risk is swimming without a lifeguard on duty. Epstein estimates 99 percent of open water drownings occur after lifeguards go home. At Jones Beach, a guard’s shift varies, with the early shift at 8 a.m. and closing around 7 p.m. But at smaller town beaches, lifeguards may be gone long before beachgoers are tempted to pack it in.
Long Island’s ocean shoreline is known for rip currents (which pull swimmers away from the shore), and even the strongest swimmer can get caught in a tricky eddy (a current in a swirling, circular pattern), which can be hard to spot from the water’s edge.
Lifeguards are trained to spot changes in coloring that may indicate dangerous currents, that’s why swimming without one watching is a risky proposition.
Cronin-Stagnari is a lifelong competitive swimmer yet a rookie at Jones Beach, heading into her second summer as a guard there. At 52 years old, the triathlete and Masters swimming coach explained that even very strong pool swimmers can run into trouble when they get into the Atlantic. “I’ve seen guys who were great swimmers in the pool have trouble in the ocean,” she said. “You have colder temperatures, you can go into shock, you can panic.” Medical emergencies like a heart attack or a diabetes episode are immediately more complicated in the water, even protected waters like the Great South Bay. Cronin-Stagnari said every summer there are families who jump into the Bay fully clothed, thinking the shallow waters are no big deal, but being weighed down by heavy clothing and taken out by deceptively strong tides can lead them into distress. She added that parents often don’t keep as close an eye on children as they might where waves are bigger.
Epstein echoed that parents can underestimate the vigilance necessary when it comes to kids and beach safety. “Parents will come up to the stand and ask us to keep an extra-close eye on their child,” while they sit back and relax on the beach.
He recommends parents be in the water with any children younger than 13, because even calm days can harbor surprisingly strong waves that can pummel smaller kids. He’s seen plenty of rescues that happen right along the shoreline in the shallow whitewater surf.
Cronin-Stagnari taught children to swim for years and she said one of the first lessons she instilled in kids was to slowly and cautiously approach any body of water. “Mother Nature doesn’t care that you can’t get up,” Epstein said. The waves keep coming and sometimes elderly people and small children aren’t strong enough to get out from under them, which can escalate into a drowning danger.
“People think we’re annoying, but we’re really here to keep you safe. Lifeguards have a reputation of not being serious here on Long Island because we’re seasonal,” but as public safety first-responders, they take their job extremely seriously. Knowing how to scan the crowds and watch every person for signs of struggle, amid teenagers horsing around and the chaos of a big beach day, is an art as much as a science, Epstein said. “It’s a skill that you practice.” And practice pays off: Jones Beach has an unrivaled safety rating (per beachgoer). But even the best lifeguards can’t replace personal responsibility. The ocean is beautiful and a big part of life on Long Island, but it’s also deadly serious. Guarding yourself is the first line of defense.
Can’t swim a stroke or ready to perfect your Michael Phelps? Long Island has a swimming class for that.
Beginners: At the Nassau County Aquatic Center in East Meadow’s Eisenhower Park, a “Terrified Of Water” class helps novice and fearful adults in a small group setting. Year-round, open to Nassau residents only. nassaucountyny.gov
Intermediate: All YMCA locations offer a host of lessons, from beginner to intermediate levels. At the Huntington YMCA nine 45-minute adult classes cost $118
plus membership fees. ymcali.org
Advanced: Experienced swimmers who are interested in tackling open water can check out Open Water Swimming, a lifeguarded coached swim at the Fire Island Lighthouse. $25 drop in fee for non-members. openwaterswimli.com