Beach Watch

Jenny Scarborough
Ocracoke Lifeguards Matt, Eliza and John
Ocracoke Lifeguards Matt, Eliza and John

Ocracoke's summer population just grew by three.

John Ralph, Eliza German and Matt Stankevich are the lifeguards responsible for protecting Ocracoke swimmers.  A fourth position is funded, but has not been filled.

They'll be on duty from Memorial Day through Labor Day, watching out for swimmers from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.  "We're here to inform and educate.  We give people the best information to make good choices," said head guard John Ralph, who first guarded on Ocracoke in 2000. 

80% of rescues on Ocracoke are rip related, said John.  Lifeguards remind swimmers to also be mindful of heavy surf, lightning and marine hazards like Portugese man o' wars.

Lifeguards are US Lifesaving Association certified and medical First Responders.  Their last three weeks were spent preparing for the season, including a week of open water ocean training.

Guards are taught to recognize different dangers, and anticipate problems.  They take note of who is drinking beer on the beach before heading in for a swim, said Eliza, and assess people's level of comfort as they negotiate the shore break. 

The most common mistakes that endanger swimmers are "overestimating abilities and not having proper equipment," said John.  Use fins if you're going to swim out past the sand bar.  Don't weigh yourself down with jeans and cotton T-shirts.  A body board that is too large for a child to handle can become a raft that carries him or her out to sea, he said. 

Since 2000, John has worked in four different National Parks, most recently in Golden Gate Recreation Area.  He enjoys that Ocracoke is "a traditional lifeguard beach," where rescuers complement their own skills and strength with boards, tubes and fins.  "Plus it's Kenny's last summer," he said of his decision to return.

Originally from Virginia Beach, Eliza is back for her second summer.  Last year "I rescued more [beach] umbrellas than people," she said.  The lifeguards have a shovel and post hole digger that beach-goers are welcome to borrow.  Her advice for setting up an umbrella:  dig it in, and point the domed side, rather than the scoop, into the wind.

Why Ocracoke?  "The people, the island, the beauty, the job.  Enough said," said Eliza, grinning.  Last summer one of the best things she spotted was a spinner shark, leaping straight out of the water.  In the winter she works in a ski shop and plays in wild, wonderful West Virginia.

Matt Stankevich, a biology student at Old Dominion University, is the only novice guard.  Matt is happy about his new position and said he's already having fun being on Ocracoke. 

John vacationed on Ocracoke in the 1970s and 1980s, when his aunt Margie and uncle Milton Loebsack lived here.  He spends his off seasons traveling, rock climbing and visiting beaches around the world.  Ask him about his recent adventures on the Dalmation coast of Croatia and in Mexico. 

Keep yourself safe by swimming near a lifeguard.  And wear sunblock. 

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