With training over, Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue readies for summer

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Last Friday, the members of Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue returned to the stands in full force to cast their watchful eyes over beachgoers as the Memorial Day holiday marked the formal start of the summer tourist season.

In preparation, the guards participated in the 2016 Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue Challenge and one last training session Thursday to bring together what they learned while building camaraderie among the group of new and returning lifeguards.

Five teams of seven lifeguards made their way down the beach to participate in an array of tests. They were timed, but also given points, with the lifeguards running, conducting paddleboard rescues and handling real-world beach emergency scenarios.

Though he still had points to tally, Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue Director Dave Baker had already seen the results of the two weeks of training the ocean rescue team had completed to get to this point. The teams finished within 12 minutes of each other.

“That’s how strong each of you are,” Baker told the group of exhausted rescuers afterward. “It shows how collectively strong this team is.”

The team will staff the 13 Wrightsville Beach lifeguard stands throughout the summer. On weekends, two lifeguards will man each stand from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with four ATVs and two trucks also roving the beach. On the weekdays, most stands will have just one lifeguard, though there will be two at some “hotspots,” Baker said.

At the stand by Augusta Street, lifeguard teams running down the beach in the training scenario were flagged down by a lifeguard posing as a beachgoer. His grandfather had passed out, he needed help. The team ran through its procedures, calling in the emergency while starting CPR on the dummy serving as the distressed grandfather. One lifeguard asked the grandson about the man’s health and condition, including medications, to which he learned the man was on blood pressure medication.

This attention to detail is what they have been training for.

“Everything is testing our ability and what we’re learning through training,” said Thalia Harrison, who began her second season with ocean rescue. “Going through the scenarios, you know what to do because you’ve done it before.”

The challenge also included scenarios for lacerations and jellyfish stings. Regardless of the emergency, four-year veteran Ray McGorry said the training was focused on putting the lifeguards in positions to handle any situation.

“It’s having control on the beach,” he said. “A lot of times when you’re on the stand, people come up super panicked. You have to defuse the situation, assess the victim, develop a plan of action.”

Jenson Engen, a former University of North Carolina Wilmington swimmer who was named Colonial Athletic Association rookie of the year in 2013, is one of 12 newcomers on the team this year. She admitted that she underestimated the training.

“I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” Engen said. “Over the past two weeks, I’ve learned so much. A lot of it is calling it in, knowing your signals, how to assess the victim.”

While the returning lifeguards mostly worked on physical training, the rookies spent several hours a day in the classroom learning the details. Still, mastering the procedures was what Engen said was the hardest part of the challenge.

“A lot of it was mental for me. Once we got to the victims, the veterans knew how to take care of them quicker,” Engen said. “But I think that will come with practice. We’ll become more comfortable with it.”

As each team in the challenge crossed the finish line in the Carolina Yacht Club parking lot after two hours of swimming, running and simulated lifeguard events, they were cheered wildly by their comrades before enjoying an outdoor shower from a fire truck’s hose. It’s all part of the teamwork they said makes lifeguarding for Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue the “best job ever.”

“It’s such a good group of people. It’s such a rewarding job,” Harrison said. “It’s a job that you’re excited to go to.”

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