By Breeana Greenberg and C. Jayden Smith
With the end of the school year fast approaching and Memorial Day weekend around the corner, the middle of May means San Clemente’s and Dana Point’s beaches are about to see millions of visitors.
Ahead of the unofficial start to summer, The Capistrano Dispatch spoke with local lifeguards and surfers to glean safety tips and tricks for beachgoers, and to discuss the meanings behind the various flags flown above lifeguard towers.
BEACH WARNING FLAGS
Ian Burton is a marine safety officer for the City of San Clemente and 34-year lifeguarding veteran. Burton, who has served in San Clemente’s Marine Safety Division for 16 years, provided explanations behind each flag that visitors may see at the beach and other pertinent information.
“One of the key things that we teach folks when (they’re) coming down to the beach is to be aware of what the conditions are,” he said.
A green flag signifies light conditions; yellow advises people to swim with caution because of an increase in surf size or the strength of currents; and red means the conditions in the ocean are hazardous because of extremely strong rip currents.
“Definitely know your limits,” said Burton. “Make sure that you’re very comfortable in yellow conditions. If you’re going out in red, it doesn’t mean that you can’t go out, but it definitely means that you should really think twice.”
Additionally, the lifeguards display yellow flags with black circles on them to prohibit surfing in the area, which can be used at different times throughout the day and serves to separate casual swimming areas from places for surfing and non-powered watercraft. The flags are flown at T-Street Beach in the morning and at night, for example, leaving the middle of the day for swimmers to enjoy the water without fear of colliding with a surfer.
When purple flags are flown, that indicates the presence of marine life, such as stingrays.
The flags can change from green to yellow or yellow to red in the middle of the day, according to Burton, as either dispatchers in the Marine Safety Headquarters or tower guards can alert other lifeguards of increases in the surf or accelerating rip currents.
He added that lifeguards most often rescue people on yellow-flag days, as red flags intimidate some into staying out of the water.
“If there’s lulls in between the sets—like if there’s a 10-minute lull in between the larger sets—it gives people a sense of false security,” Burton said. “(People say), ‘The surf’s not that big; I can go farther out,’ and then all of a sudden, you’re out there and that larger set rolls in.”
The lifeguards update the water conditions at 8 a.m., noon and 4 p.m. each day, using whiteboards at each station to list the current flag situation, as well as the height of the surf, high and low tides, water temperature, and the weather.
Other ocean safety resources include the city’s Beach Report at san-clemente.org, reports from surfline.com, and various apps that provide similar information.
For families coming down for a beach day, Burton advised checking water conditions before leaving home and speaking with the nearby lifeguards once they arrive.
“Our lifeguards have been up in the tower for a couple hours by the time those families get down here,” he said. “They can give you an idea (of the current situation by saying), ‘This spot over here has had a lot of rip currents; it’s been kind of a hotspot. Why don’t you guys set up down this way?’ ”
If the day is a red-flag day, it’s best to avoid the beach and keep young children safe, Burton added. His other advice included swimming in front of lifeguards, never swimming alone, and knowing everyone’s limits.
Visitors should bring the right equipment for whatever activity they plan on doing and make sure their boogie boards have a leash attached, according to Burton, who said his division also recommends wearing fins.
“No matter what the surf size is, if you’re out there body surfing or boogie boarding, you’ll catch way more waves; you’ll have more fun,” he said about fins. “Plus, you’ll be a stronger swimmer if you get into trouble.”
SAFETY IN NUMBERS
According to the San Clemente Lifeguard and Junior Guard Foundation—which works to provide support and resources to local lifeguards and junior lifeguards—more than 2.5 million people visit San Clemente city beaches each year.
In 2022, San Clemente lifeguards conducted 2,686 rescues; 54,406 preventative contacts; 57,386 public education contacts; and 1,184 first aids with no lives lost, according to data provided by the foundation.
When surfer Dane Gudauskas, originally from San Clemente, heads out to the beach, he likes to take some time to assess water conditions before getting into the water. He added that if it’s an area he’s not familiar with, it’s helpful to ask a lifeguard where the rip currents are, the best place to paddle out and what the swells are looking like.
“If you can feel that there’s a big swell in the water or it’s quite strong ocean energy—again, just taking that moment to pause and really reflect on the strength of the ocean that you’re never going to be in a situation where you can overpower it,” said Gudauskas.
“You really want to understand your safety routes,” Gudauskas continued. “If you are in a sketchy spot like a riptide, paddle sideways to the shore.”
Rip currents tend to be discolored and choppy, so one might notice that it almost looks like a river going out from the shoreline, said Gudauskas, one of the co-founders of the local nonprofit Positive Vibe Warriors.
“A lot of times, many don’t even recognize that they’re in one until they’re in it and it’s just the water from underneath going out to the horizon,” Gudauskas said. “But once you do notice that you are moving away from the shore … and how you’re moving in the water can give you those early awareness tips if you’re going into a riptide.”
For surfers feeling inexperienced or are challenging themselves, Gudauskas added that it’s a good idea to wear a leash.
“If you lose your board, that puts you in a challenging situation,” Gudauskas said. “If you’re feeling stressed, now you have to figure out how to get back to shore swimming-wise. But when you always have your board nearby, you can always use that as a float device and feel that sense of calmness.”
Greg Hulsizer of the San Clemente Lifeguard and Junior Guard Foundation said that it’s important to know which boards are appropriate for different wave conditions.
“Wave storms are wonderful for people to learn; they’re great for places like Doheny (State Beach), but you’re not going to take a wave storm out at a critical break,” Hulsizer said. “You’ll find yourself in over your head really quickly, and if you do, someone will help you out.”
Hulsizer noted that important basic rules of surfing to keep in mind are to “never turn your board sideways, always keep it pointed straight and out and never bail on your board; always hold onto your board because if you bail off and that leash breaks, it’s going to get somebody else.”
Having a strong foundation of swimming before heading out on the water is an absolute imperative, Gudauskas added. He said those who want to get into surfing should first have a strong foundation of swimming.
“Spend some time in the pool, get to know swim stroke, feel comfortable in the water column before you go out and get into the lineup,” Gudauskas said.
Emphasizing the importance of learning how to swim, Assemblymember Laurie Davies looks to establish a state Youth Water Safety Grant, which would create funding for nonprofits and public agencies to provide swim programs.
“I think the No. 1 thing is to save lives,” Davies previously said of her legislation, Assembly Bill 1056. “Children, 0 to 5, can actually drown in 2 inches of water. It’s a massive issue when you consider that drowning is the third-leading cause of unintentional injuries, deaths worldwide, and that’s according to the CDC.”
“But these are deaths that could be stopped, and so education is everything,” Davies continued.
During its May 2 meeting, the Dana Point City Council and the Orange County Fire Authority issued a proclamation for National Drowning Prevention Awareness Month.
At the San Clemente City Council’s meeting on Tuesday, May 16, Mayor Chris Duncan presented marine safety officials with a proclamation declaring the period from May 22 to May 29 as National Beach Safety Week.
The annual observance, which the United States Lifesaving Association sponsors, reminds beachgoers to be cautious near the water.
OCFA recommends learning the “ABCs of drowning prevention”: Active Adult Supervision, Barriers and Classes.
The ABCs advise having a “water watcher,” an adult who knows how to swim to watch over those in the water; keeping barriers around pools and spas to avoid unattended children from falling in; and taking swim and water rescue classes.
“If you have young children, just keep an eye on them; be responsible for them,” Gudauskas said. “The ocean is always in motion. Never turn your back on the ocean. If you’re standing at the water column, be aware that you’re next to this incredible amount of energy.”
It’s also important to never dive headfirst into the ocean and always put your hands over your head when you’re coming up from below the water after falling off your surfboard, Hulsizer said.
Hulsizer noted that May is not only National Water Safety Awareness Month but also National Skin Cancer Awareness Month, too.
Growing up, Hulsizer said it was almost a badge of honor to sport a sunburn from summers in the water. After needing to have malignant melanomas taken off skin, Hulsizer emphasized the need to wear long sleeves, hats, sunscreen and other sun protection to decrease the risk of skin cancer.
Another beach hazard, Hulsizer noted, is marine life such as stingrays.
“They tend to show up when the waves are smaller and when the water is warmer and the sun’s out, right on shore” Hulsizer said. “What we teach people is always shuffle your feet … they’ll go away if you shuffle your feet.
“But if you run out in the water, stomp out in the water, you’re going to step on the back of it, and the tail is going to come up,” Hulsizer continued. “And you’ve never seen anybody in more pain than someone who’s been hit by a sting. I’ve seen grown men cry; it’s that painful.”
Another important safety tip that Hulsizer offered: “Alcohol and the ocean don’t mix. No drinking and swimming.”
With all the right tools to ensure a safe beach day, “you’re off to the races,” Gudauskas said.
“Dana Point, Capo Beach, San Clemente, they’re all coastal towns, and it’s such a beautiful natural resource that we have right here at our doorstep,” Gudauskas said. “Giving yourself the tools to engage with it in a safe and meaningful way …. you’re going to have a blast.”
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