By Donald Wittkowski
Katie McGarry remembers the lessons that her parents taught her about beach safety when she was growing up.
Now 41 years old and a mother of four, McGarry is passing on those same rules to her children to make sure that they, too, will respect the power of the ocean.
“They’re used to a pool, but the ocean is a completely different animal,” she said. “I think that the ocean is a living, breathing thing and they should always take it seriously.”
McGarry and other Sea Isle City beachgoers – young and old – are being particularly cautious following the deaths this week of two swimmers who succumbed to their injuries in separate accidents apparently caused by rough surf.
Brian C. Zwaan, 58, a prominent banker from Berwyn, Pa., died Monday of head and neck injuries complicated by drowning, according to a city press release. Then on Wednesday, a 74-year-old man, whose identity has not yet been released, was knocked over by an unusually large wave at the 59th Street beach. He died of his injuries early Thursday in a local hospital.
Both deaths were ruled as accidental, authorities said.
Zwaan, who owned a summer home in Sea Isle, had been swimming on the 86th Street beach. McGarry, her three daughters, her son and her father were lounging on the same beach on Friday, keenly aware of Zwaan’s death just four days earlier.
McGarry, a vacationer from Ambler, Pa., said the accident underscored the importance of the safety tips she learned from her parents as a young girl and is now sharing with her children.
“If an adult or their grandparent isn’t with them, they can only go out to their knees,” McGarry said of the depth of the water. “If they’re accompanied by an adult, they can go out a little farther.”
While McGarry was holding her 2-year-old son, Kevin, her father, Bill Wolfe, took on the responsibility of standing next to her daughters, Quinn, 8, Grace, 6, and Mayra, 4, as they played in the shallow water.
Wolfe, 68, also of Ambler, has been vacationing on Sea Isle’s beaches since the 1960s. He stressed that people should never underestimate the dangers of the ocean.
“Respect the ocean and always watch out for the undertow,” Wolfe said.
Also enjoying the day on the 86th Street beach were Stephen Burnett and his 2-year-old son, Zee. Burnett, on vacation from his home in Dallas, said he has been surfing since he was 8 years old and is intimately aware of just how hazardous and unpredictable the ocean can be.
Burnett acknowledged that he will be even more careful in the surf following the two swimming deaths. Even more important, he noted, is the safety of his son.
“He has his lifejacket and he can doggy paddle. But he also knows not to go out too deep,” Burnett said. “He knows not to go out any farther until he turns around and waits for me to give him the OK.”
Terri and Brian McKendry, vacationers from Jamison, Pa., follow a strict ritual each time they visit the beach with their children, Katie, 14, Megan, 12, Mikayla, 11, Molly, 9, Kevin, 6, and Ryan, 3.
“We always talk to the lifeguards and ask them how powerful the ocean is,” Terri McKendry said as her husband nodded his head in agreement.
She also noted that she establishes “two boundaries” on the beach and in the water for her children.
“One is me and the other is the lifeguard,” she said. “That’s where they always have to be.”
Brian McKendry pointed out that his children have been taught that beach safety is comparable to the rules of the road.
“It’s just like with a traffic light. Green is go, yellow is caution and red is danger,” he said.
Sea Isle and other communities along the Jersey Shore use colored flags to alert swimmers to surf conditions. A green flag means calm water, yellow indicates a moderately rough ocean and red warns of dangerous surf.
Sea Isle City’s Beach Patrol has a series of beach safety tips on its website at www.sicbp.com. They include information on the warning flags, storms, rip currents, head, neck and back injuries and stinging jelly fish.
“We are constantly trying to educate the public,” said Capt. Renny Steele, who heads the Sea Isle Beach Patrol and has been a member since 1968.
Steele emphasized there is one fundamental rule for beach safety that should always be followed.
“To me, it’s obvious: Always swim in front of a lifeguard,” he said.
Sea Isle has dealt with rough surf in the past week. Steele did not believe the surf was churned up by a coastal storm last weekend that dumped heavy rain on the Jersey Shore. He pointed out that factors such as the wind, tides, the moon cycle and storms far out to sea can make the surf choppy.
Heavy surf apparently contributed to the two swimming deaths, including head and neck injuries. The man on 59th Street was bowled over by what was believed to be an unusually large “rogue” wave, city spokeswoman Katherine Custer said.
Coincidentally, the Sea Isle lifeguards were receiving refresher training on head, neck and back injuries on the day that Zwaan died of those same injuries, Steele said.
He explained that lifeguards go through training and safety lessons every morning to help keep their skills sharp.
Steele said the lifeguards who were on duty during the two swimming accidents were “exemplary” in their efforts to save both men. Lifeguards performed CPR on both of them before they were transported to local hospitals.
“I’ve gotten a lot of comments on Facebook and in my emails about how well the lifeguards did,” Steele said.
In all his years on the beach patrol, Steele said he could not remember another time when two people died in the same week on beaches protected by lifeguards.
“This is an exception to have two deaths in the same week. It’s not typical of what goes on in Sea Isle or other shore towns,” he said.