First rule of thumb when you’re swimming in the ocean: swim near a lifeguard.
That way, if disaster strikes, be it shark bite, jelly fish sting, an unexpected cramp or a stronger-than-anticipated rip tide, you have help.
Ryan Harrison, who has been the lifeguard in the chair at 76th Avenue North in Myrtle Beach for the last 15 years, says that is the best piece of advice he can give anyone visiting the beach.
Harrison spends about half the year working as a lifeguard, dedicating the second side of his career to the Dirty Karma clothing line. Growing up in Virginia, he got the offer of a lifeguard position just after his graduation from Emory & Henry College. The draw of working at the beach was appealing, and he’s never looked back.
“Being at the beach, working with people, providing water safety, all interests me,” he said. “And saving people, that’s a big part of it.”
Harrison has been joined the last five years by Denny Starr, who works the lifeguard stand at 77th Avenue North.
Both men say families return to the same spots near their lifeguard stands every year.
“Ryan has people come back that he met when they were five, and they’re in college now, and they call him by name,” said Starr. “People remember us, and they come back to the same spots because they trust us.”
Both men work for Myrtle Beach Lifeguards, one of four companies with which the city contracts for lifeguard services. The cost of the service is paid for by umbrella rentals that the lifeguards run. But lifeguards are charged first and foremost with water safety and with the implementation of city ordinances, which, say both men, can be frustrating at times.
“People think all we do is sell umbrellas, or that we just make the rules up as we go,” said Harrison. “We just enforce the laws the city has on the books. That includes restricting personal umbrellas people put up. They can’t put them up in front of the established umbrella line we put in every morning. And they absolutely can’t put them in front of lifeguard stands.”
He said sometimes people get angry at being asked to move back, but it’s important to keep lines of sight open for the lifeguards.
Harrison, Starr and the company’s other 10 lifeguards having training once a week, and are Red Cross CPR certified, as well as having basic first-aid training and education. Training topics can range from multiple person rescues to dealing with fishing hook injuries to how to deal with shark attacks, though both men say those are rare in Myrtle Beach.
“In the 15 years I’ve been at this spot, I’ve had one shark bite,” said Harrison. “Two people were bitten by the same shark, one right after another. The people got hurt, but they survived and I don’t think lost any limbs or anything that serious. And that is the only one I’m aware of. People don’t realize that the North Carolina coastline juts out. A shark that is a mile offshore here will be within the swimmer’s range by the time he gets to North Carolina.”
Starr said the bigger danger is people losing focus when they get to the beach.
“People are on vacation, and they don’t pay as much attention,” he said. “We encourage people to be aware of their surroundings.”
Harrison and Starr, along with Amos Collins, who is a first-year lifeguard at 75th Avenue but who has worked with the men putting up umbrellas for several years, said working with the public, meeting people, answering questions, making friends, is the best part of the job.
Collins has known Harrison for several years and Starr was the first person he met when he moved to Myrtle Beach. When a stand opened up this summer, Harrison said Collins was the only person he could think of that might be able to do the job.
“I thought I was in good shape,” said Collins, who is a personal trainer and the head wresting coach at North Myrtle Beach High School. “But I swam four laps in a pool and realized swimming is a whole different sport. I actually worked with a trainer for a month before I took the test and I wasn’t sure I could pass it.”
All three men say in addition to swimming near a lifeguard, people should refrain from going too far out (city ordinance says no farther than shoulder deep or 50 yards, whichever comes first) and they should ask questions of the lifeguards so they know the rules from the outset.
Harrison added that people think swimming in the ocean is like swimming in the pool, “and nothing could be farther from the truth.” Rip currents can carry someone out to deep water in a short amount of time, and people on boogie boards who surf into shore can get knocked off the board and end up with serious back or neck injuries when they hit the sand. Sharp shells are underwater, and when the water is crowded, you can get knocked into another swimmer or boarder unexpectedly.
“The surf and it’s movement changes things,” Harrison said. “People don’t always realize that swimming itself is hard, and when you add the surf, it can be a lot harder than you expect.”
His most dramatic rescue, he said, involved pulling three men out of an intense rip tide on his own.
“Ideally you want three people on a rescue,” he said. “But this day the beach was closed, the red flag was out, and the closest lifeguard to me was I think four or five blocks up.”
He said three men were working on a hotel behind him, and they decided to take a break and cool off in the water. But in short order they got too deep, and the rip current was visibly carrying them out.
“I grabbed my gear and swam out to them,” he said. “They were just exhausted, couldn’t kick or anything. All they could do was hold on to the float. I was swimming, but the surf was so bad that it was flipping me backwards as I was swimming, and I got tangled in the line and turned around.”
He said for a split second, he thought they weren’t going to make it. But during training, he’d been taught that if you get turned around under water, you should let air out and watch the air bubbles. Follow them to the surface. And that’s what he did.
“But I’ll tell you, I’ve never been so scared in the water as I was that day.” When he made it to shore, all four of them were spent. It turned out none of the men could swim, and all three were wearing heavy blue jeans that became even heavier when wet.
“We want people to come and have a good time,” said Starr. “And we’re here to be sure that you have help if you need it, whether it’s a lost child, a question about the best place to eat, or to help get you out of the water safely if you get in trouble. All we ask is that you work with us. Listen for the whistle, be aware of what’s around you, and please don’t argue with us when we ask you to do something.”