Rip Currents, Warm Weather Cause Busy Sunday; One Swimmer In Critical Condition

OCEAN CITY — A variety of factors led to a busy spring beach day on Sunday for emergency services providers with at least nine documented incidents of swimmers in distress in the ocean, including a victim who was transported to the hospital in critical condition.

Mid-summer-like crowds in Ocean City in mid-May, coupled with unseasonably warm weather and an offshore-storm-snarled surf conspired to create a busy day on the beach for the Ocean City Fire Department (OCFD) and the Ocean City Beach Patrol on Sunday. On top of that, those conditions all came together on the weekend before the patrol starts manning the stands for the summer season on Memorial Day weekend, although OCBP staffers were active in the rescues throughout the day.

“It was a perfect storm,” said OCFD spokesman Ryan Whittington. “There was a storm off the coast, the beach patrol was not yet on duty and it was absolutely beautiful. It created a situation where a lot of people were entering the water.”

Whittington said the fire department responded to nine separate incidents of swimmers in distress in the ocean on Sunday. The evolving situation resulted in the fire department altering the strategy and directing resources to the beach.

“After the fourth or fifth call, we decided to put a gator on the beach with rescue swimmers,” he said. “They were mobile and were able to respond to calls quickly.”

Whittington said the calls for swimmers in distress often involved multiple victims. While there were nine total calls, dozens were pulled from the water on Sunday.

“In some incidents, it was a single swimmer in distress,” he said. “In others, there were two or three. In one incident alone, there were eight swimmers in distress.”

The number of actual rescues is considerably higher than those reported. Once the beach patrol mobilized crews on ATVs and started making rescues largely in the south end of town, those incidents were not reported because they didn’t originate as 911 calls, according to OCBP Captain Butch Arbin.

One incident in particular met with potentially grave consequences. Whittington said around 2 p.m. on Sunday, rescue swimmers responded to an incident involving a male victim floating face down in the ocean at 5th Street. OCFD rescue swimmers, with the assistance of the beach patrol, pulled the victim from the ocean and immediately began lifesaving measures. The victim was transported to Atlantic General Hospital in critical condition and his outcome has not been made public.

Arbin said the OCBP checked in the first batch of rookies last week and was checking in the first batch of veteran guards last Sunday when the incidents began unfolding. He said the staggered check-in practice began last year during COVID because the department did not want large groups of people checking in at once.

The check-in process was underway on Sunday when the calls started coming in about distressed swimmer incidents. Arbin said he immediately deployed experienced lifeguards on four ATVs and they responded to each of the 911 calls along with the fire department. He said the fire department does an excellent job in responding to water rescues when the beach patrol is not on duty and respond immediately, but the experienced lifeguards on ATVs are more adept at reaching victims quickly.

“The fire department does a great job,” he said. “They are right on those incidents quickly, but once they get a call, they are coming from a firehouse, getting in an ambulance, driving to the scene, disrobing or whatever they have to do before getting in the water,” he said. “Our people are already prepared to get in the water and make saves and practically jump off the ATVs while they’re still moving. We weren’t scheduled to be doing anything on the beach last Sunday, but if we’re around, we’ll jump right in and assist. It was a great job by everyone involved.”

While the beach patrol does not officially start manning stands until Saturday, Arbin said crews are often out the beach completing other tasks on spring weekends. Last week, for example, crews were loading stands onto the beach and those personnel were technically on duty and prepared to make rescues if need be.

“Last week, we were putting stands on the beach and we informed Communications we would be out there,” said Arbin. “They are designated to respond when they’re out there.”

While the beach patrol was putting stands out on the beach last week, they were not placed in their final positions and won’t be until the crews are ready to take the stands on Saturday.

“We put them out there in clusters, and don’t drag them into position until the last minute on Saturday,” he said. “We don’t want to give any impression that we’re going to be out there. If people see those stands in position early, they might have the impression that we’re out there and decide to go in the water. Conversely, if they seem dragged back and in clusters, that let’s them know that we aren’t out there. The bottom line is for people to please keep their feet in the sand until we’re actively on duty.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.