OCEAN CITY — Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin says he’d like his lifeguards to have more authority on Ocean City beaches, but Mayor Rick Meehan believes the patrol already has all the power it needs.
After Sunday’s heroic rescue of three young swimmers by 26-year-old surfer Nick Wilson, the issue of night swimming, which became a hot topic for the Mayor and City Council last fall and was later tabled until after the summer season, has resurfaced.
The council planned to reevaluate the city’s stance on night swimming early this fall, after voting 5-1, with Council President Joe Mitrecic in opposition and Councilwoman Mary Knight absent, in January to table an ordinance that would have banned all swimming in the ocean after dark.
January’s decision was based on Arbin’s written letter that stated passing the ordinance would send a “mixed message” since banning swimming only at night negates the several hours between when the guards go off duty at 5:30 p.m. and nightfall.
“Sunday’s rescue of the three young kids by the surfer is a great example,” explained Arbin. “That incident took place well after the guards left the beach but it was still light out, so the city’s ordinance would have been irrelevant if they had passed it last winter. We’ve been telling people for years that they should have their feet in the sand until the guard is in the stand, and I think that is the message we need to get out there.”
For the most part, Arbin said swimmers are getting the message and noted that most people do comply with the lifeguards’ assessments of when it is safe and when it isn’t safe to go in the ocean.
“The concept for me is that I would like for our guards to have the authority to keep people safe from their own stupidity,” said Arbin. “There were instances this past weekend where we had to get the police involved and issue disorderly conduct citations for people who still wanted to go in the water on Saturday.”
The beach patrol closed the ocean to swimmers on Saturday due to the conditions created by Hurricane Bill, and, according to Meehan, did a fantastic job of disseminating the information to people who were on the beach all weekend long.
“I think people do listen to the lifeguards with great interest, and I was up there this weekend for quite awhile and saw on two occasions, lifeguards blow their whistles and instruct everybody to come out of the water and gather around their stands so they could give updates about the surf conditions,” said Meehan. “When they were finished, people applauded and went back to their blankets.”
Arbin contests that the issue for him is that the difference between being able to “strongly advise swimmers to stay out of the water versus telling them that it’s outright illegal to be in the water” is vast.
“We don’t want to be having argumentative conversations with people who refuse to get off the beach when there’s a lightning storm,” said Arbin. “I’ve sat there and tried to talk people off the beach who had their hair standing on end from all the static electricity in the air during a lightning storm. We want to give people as much access to the beach and the ocean as we can safely manage.”
Meehan contested, however, that giving more authority or essentially passing measures that could levy fines against tourists who want to enjoy the beach post 5:30 p.m. is a bit of a tripping point.
“We are all going to sit down with Butch [Arbin] and figure out the best way to approach this,” said Meehan. “I agree with him that nighttime is a hard thing to define, but I truly believe that for the majority of people who come to Ocean City, when a lifeguard waves a flag or blows a whistle, they comply immediately.”
Arbin says he grows almost angry with adults who blatantly ignore the safety advisements and ongoing public education from the beach patrol, especially during storms like last weekend’s Hurricane Bill and this weekend’s expected Hurricane Danny.
“Rip currents are the third leading cause of ocean-related deaths, and during storms this powerful, these currents are faster than Olympic swimmers could keep up with,” said Arbin. “Why adults continue to allow their kids to be put at risk by entering the water in those conditions I’ll never understand.”