Swim at Your Own Risk

Sundae Horn
Dylan Bennink was part of the crew that kept swimmers safe in 2013.
Dylan Bennink was part of the crew that kept swimmers safe in 2013.

Ocracoke faces a summer season with no lifeguards at the lifeguard beach.

“We haven’t hired any lifeguards,” said Cape Hatteras National Seashore superintendent Barclay Trimble. “We’re not planning to move forward on that.”

Trimble explained that de-funding the lifeguard program at the Seashore’s three lifeguarded beaches (at Coquina Beach, Buxton, and Ocracoke) was necessary because of budget constraints.

“Our budget for seasonal employees has been diminished by two-thirds,” he said.

He added that the parks have maintenance issues – budget cuts have caused them to put off preventive and cyclical maintenance until problems occur. 

The summer season also requires extra law enforcement and more interpretive staff at the visitor centers. Ocracoke should have two seasonal interpretive rangers this year.

“We want to be able to keep the Visitor Centers open and have that available for the visitor experience,” he said.

In a press release issued in December, Trimble said: "Given our current budget realities and the uncertainty for the future, the National Park Service is exercising extreme caution in spending to ensure that available funding is directed towards the highest priorities." 

View from the Lifeguard stand in August, 2013.
View from the Lifeguard stand in August, 2013.

Rudy Austin is a lifelong Ocracoke resident, a business owner, and president of the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association. He disagrees that the interpretive programs should take priority over lifeguards.

“We’ve had lifeguards since the latter part of the 50’s,” he said. “It’s one of the first things the Park furnished when they got started. We’d prefer to have lifeguards over interpretive programs. Somebody’s life is more important.” 

Rudy thinks that not having lifeguards would be another economic blow for Ocracoke.

“We’re all about families here,” he said. “And lifeguards are important for families. It’s much safer with kids to go to the lifeguard beach. That’s where my wife took our kids when they were little. Not having lifeguards will absolutely affect Ocracoke’s economy – one of the things I’m reasonably sure about is that families look at safety when they’re deciding where to go on vacation." 

Local business owner Philip Howard thinks the Park interpretive programs are a good thing, but he’s concerned about the residual effect of losing our lifeguards.

“Not only do lifeguards have an obvious effect on safety, they help ensure that visitors feel comfortable coming here,” he said. “If they don’t feel comfortable coming here, then they’ll also miss the Park’s interpretive programs and miss seeing the village. Lifeguards are part of the whole experience of visiting Ocracoke and visiting the Seashore.”

Philip is a good ocean swimmer, but he still feels safer taking his grandkids to the lifeguard beach.

“I think it’s a reasonable assumption that people’s impression of Ocracoke will change if we don’t have lifeguards,” he said.

In 2007, when Ocracoke earned the designation “Best Beach in the U.S.” from Dr. Beach (a.k.a. Stephen Leatherman, Ph.D.), it was specifically the Lifeguard Beach that he recognized. While commending Ocracoke for its combination of unspoiled beaches with a village that provides services for visitors, he also mentioned its high marks for lifeguards, a “stringent requirement” for a #1 beach. Dr. Beach promotes beach safety and considers lifeguards a “hard standard” of quality. 

Swim at Your Own Risk

The three parks in the Cape Hatteras group (Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, Wright Brothers National Memorial, and the Seashore) have a combined annual visitation of over 3 million people. Only about 200,000 (7%) of those visitors use the one of the lifeguarded beaches, Trimble noted.

Trimble said that while the beach is NPS property, once people are out in the ocean, that water is actually under the state’s jurisdiction. 

The lifeguard program usually costs the park about $200,000, which comes to roughly one dollar per beach visitor. That pays for 15 lifeguards, five per lifeguard beach. Costs include salaries, liability insurance, employee housing, and equipment.

Visitation numbers are based on reports from the lifeguards themselves, who keep stats of average daily number of people. They count the visitors within the official protected area, which is 150 feet wide in front of the lifeguard stands.

“Of course our lifeguards go outside the lifeguard protected areas for rescues when they are needed,” said the Seashore’s Chief Ranger Paul Stevens.

There have never been drownings in areas where lifeguards were on duty in this National Seashore, confirmed Stevens.

The lifeguards file reports about their contact with visitors. That includes reminding beachgoers about Park rules, providing information, and rescuing them outside the protected area at the lifeguard beach. Ocracoke's lifeguard beach total visitation for 2013 was over 57,000. Ocracoke’s lifeguards reported they had 127 safety-related contacts with visitors and assisted 90 visitors in the water. There were also 10 rescues on Ocracoke.

Stevens explained those numbers like this: “Safety contacts are when the lifeguards talk to visitors about unsafe ocean conditions. Assistance contacts are when the lifeguards go into the water and contact visitors that might be having difficulty. Rescues are when the persons need assistance and the lifeguards bring them to the shoreline.”

The ten people who were rescued likely would not have made it back to shore by themselves.

There were two fatal drownings at the Seashore last year where lifeguards were not on duty: one in Frisco and one on Ocracoke at Ramp 59. Park officials responded to another 87 emergencies in non-guarded areas.

At one time in the Seashore’s history, lifeguards protected 11 different beaches in the Park, including Ocracoke’s NPS campground beach and the airport beach at ramp 70. Over the years, that’s been cut back to the remaining three: Coquina Beach, Buxton, and Ocracoke. It seems a simple bit of math would show us that back in the days when there were 11 lifeguard beaches, a higher percentage of Park visitors would have used a lifeguard beach. 

“Ocracoke doesn’t have an ocean rescue squad like Hatteras does,” Rudy said. “We don’t have back-up.”

Buxton has the all-volunteer Hatteras Island Rescue Squad, and visitors at Coquina Beach can call the Nags Head Fire Department for assistance.

“Our law enforcement rangers are trained and will respond to all emergencies,” Trimble said. “There will still be that service available, but not sitting right there at the beach.”

One complication of last year’s drowning on Ocracoke was that it took place in a part of the island with spotty cell phone service. And, it bears repeating, there’s never been a drowning when the lifeguards were on duty – and by “on duty” we mean sitting right there at the beach.

“Where a government puts its money shows its priorities,” said Pastor Laura Stern of Ocracoke United Methodist Church. “The Park Service should value the safety of the smallest and most vulnerable among us. As a mother of three small children, I feel more secure with the extra eyes and skills of the lifeguards. As a pastor occasionally called into a tragic drowning situation, I think it’s careless of the Park Service to take this risk.”

Instead of providing lifeguards, the Park is working with a consultant to the public health department, Trimble says, to help prevent drownings.

“It’s something we take very seriously,” he said. “We’re looking at other means to prevent drownings.”  He suggested that rip current education has been very effective.

Ocracoke Civic and Business Association and the Ocracoke Occupancy Tax Board have both discussed the possibility of the community taking over paying for the lifeguards. Former NPS chief ranger Kenny Ballance is on the OCBA board, and said, at a recent meeting, that the cost for lifeguards on Ocracoke would be about $75,000 or more for the season.

“We’re more than willing to go into an operating agreement with the Ocracoke community or OCBA,” said Trimble. “I would need a proposal from the community, then I would run it by our solicitors to find out about the liability. To move it forward for this year, we’d have to see the proposal soon.”

The community of Ocracoke is hesitating on that, hoping that Trimble can still be persuaded to change his mind.

According to NPS budget figures, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s budget is as much as it was in 2010, mostly because of increased revenue from ORV permits.

OCBA has contacted state and federal officials to ask for their support in getting the lifeguard program funded again through NPS.

The only response I received for this article was from Walter Jones, who represents the 3rd district of North Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

"The decision not to hire lifeguards for 2014 could have a serious impact on the safety of visitors to Cape Hatteras National Seashore," said Congressman Jones.  "Given available data on funding for the seashore, I question the validity of the National Park Service's justification for not hiring these crucial employees. I will continue to thoroughly research this issue and do all I can to ensure that Eastern North Carolina's beloved seashores remain safe for tourists and area residents."

It’s only March, but it may be too late for lifeguards, even if Trimble were to change the budget.

In the only bit of humor I can inject into this story, I'll recommend you click on this photo that I found while googling "Ocracoke Lifeguard Beach" images.
In the only bit of humor I can inject into this story, I'll recommend you click on this photo that I found while googling "Ocracoke Lifeguard Beach" images.

“It can’t be done timely enough,” he said. “Our head lifeguard’s term expired, and we haven’t posted a position for that. The hiring process for the Federal government isn’t speedy; our seasonal hiring is happening now.”

A quick Google search showed that other National Parks (i.e.,Gulf Islands National Seashore, Gateway National Recreation Area, Cape Cod National Seashore) are currently hiring lifeguards for the 2014 season in spite of similar budget constraints.

Contact information for Ocracoke’s elected representatives is below. Let them know what you think about the lifeguard program being de-funded.

Rep. Walter Jones’s Office:



Email: https://jones.house.gov/contact-me

Senator Kay Hagan's Office:



Email: www.hagan.Senate.gov/?p=contact

Senator Richard Burr's Office:



Email: http://www.burr.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Contact.ContactForm

Cape Hatteras National Seashore superintendent Barclay Trimble can be emailed here: barclay_trimble@nps.gov

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