‘Five People Within Five Minutes’

As dory squad waned, East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue took its place
Volunteers stay fit and ready for ocean emergencies through twice-weekly drills that involve swimming, hauling pretend victims out of the sea, and carrying them to safety onshore. Judy D’Mello

On a recent Sunday, a rip current on a Smith Point beach, near Shirley, claimed the life of 19-year-old Jevoney White. After hearing about the death, T.J. Calabrese Jr. dispatched a pager call to his crew of East End volunteer lifeguards: “A drill, swimmer in distress east of [Indian Wells] beach. Repeat, a drill.” Twenty-four lifeguards in the area responded to the call and many stayed on for the 90-minute training session.

“I did it to remind everyone why we’re here, training and practicing, doing what we do,” said Mr. Calabrese, the chief of the East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue squad, and otherwise an optometrist in Southampton. “The drowning was only 40 or 50 miles down the coast. A teenager jumps into the ocean to cool off at the end of the day and gets taken out by a rip. It could happen anywhere.”

It is this unpredictability of the ocean, its ability to turn inhospitable in a moment, that led to the formation of an East Hampton Town-sanctioned, all-volunteer organization to operate as year-round ocean first responders.

They are not the first volunteer ocean rescuers in the area. In 1978, a group of skilled East Hampton baymen with a specialized knowledge of launching their slender boats called dories off the beach into powerful surf, organized what became the East Hampton Baymen’s Association Dory Rescue Squad. Folklore has it that their response time was so quick, they had usually rescued and resuscitated a swimmer before the Coast Guard arrived at the scene.

But by 2002 a government ban of haulseining — their particular fishing practice — left dory fishing on the wane. In October that year, during an idyllic Indian summer, four swimmers off Main Beach in East Hampton were in distress. John Ryan Jr., a fireman and a certified lifeguard, got the call. So, too, did the police, the Dory Rescue Squad, and Marine Patrol. It was havoc on the high seas, Mr. Ryan remembered, with everyone, including onlookers, jumping into the fray. Although the swimmers were rescued, he emerged from the water determined to implement a more organized plan for off-duty lifeguard protocol.

In 2003, East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue officially replaced the Dory Rescue Squad, receiving town money to help its 100-percent volunteer, Suffolk County-certified ocean lifeguards, who respond year round to 911-dispatched emergencies between Wainscott and Montauk. Today, the organization has 77 members who range in age from 18 to 73, all outfitted with pagers to ensure that “we send at least five within five minutes of a call,” said Mr. Calabrese. As with most emergency responders, the urgency of time is key.

  The volunteer group operates as an adjunct to the Hampton Lifeguard Association or “sitting” lifeguards — the town-paid, often college-age men and women who oversee a few designated beaches between East Hampton and Montauk, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., June to September.

Together with this group, East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue has access to three town-owned Jet Skis, needed for rescues in rough surf. Almost half the volunteer lifeguards are certified Jet Ski operators. The town also purchased two Kawasaki side-by-side, all-terrain vehicles, to reach beaches with limited access. Several of the volunteer lifeguards like Mr. Ryan are licensed divers. Mr. Ryan remembers one New Year’s Day having to don his dive suit and plunge into the frigid water in an attempt to rescue an elderly man trapped inside a car.

East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue also hosts several community events, not covered by town funding and for which they must raise money. These include safeguarding and overseeing water-based charity events and promoting water safety in a variety of ways. A number of the volunteers also lend their time to the popular town-run junior lifeguard program, the brainchild of “the godfather of all lifeguards,” as 82-year-old John Ryan Sr. is known. “It’s all about waterproofing our community,” said Mr. Calabrese.

The need to waterproof children made international news in May when Michael R. Bloomberg announced a $25 million expansion of his philanthropic global drowning-prevention program, which reports that more than 60,000 children around the world under the age of 5 drown each year.

Rip currents like the one that claimed the life of the Smith Point teen pose the biggest threat to ocean swimmers. These powerful, narrow channels of water that flow away from the shore toward the ocean, typically reach speeds of one to two feet per second. However, some have been measured to move at eight feet per second — faster than even Michael Phelps.

To create public awareness, a local ocean rescue swimmer, Jimmy Minardi, who has been part of the volunteer group and oversees his own nonprofit ocean rescue operation, installed the first “Break the Grip of the Rip” sign in 2014 at East Hampton’s Main Beach. The next year, East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue followed suit and placed the signs on all beaches from Amagansett to Montauk. They also installed number signs at each beach, beginning with 1A at Indian Wells Beach and ending at 40 on the north side of Montauk Point to help callers immediately identify a beach location in an emergency.

On Aug. 16, a gnarly storm in the area shifted the ocean topography, causing dangerous rips and shutting down South Fork beaches. The paid lifeguards stayed on in their beach perches while the volunteer brigade remained even more vigilant than usual.

“The Volunteer Ocean Rescue squad is a tremendous asset to the safety of our community,” said East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo. “The endless hours of training and preparation they put in to maintain their lifeguard certification and coordinate response with the fire departments and police departments is truly remarkable. With miles of unprotected beaches, it is a comfort knowing that a trained professional is moments away if a swimmer is in distress.”

Endless training is, in fact, key, and during a session at Indian Wells Beach earlier this month, Bob Pucci, a soft-spoken landscaper by trade and the first assistant chief of the volunteer squad, directed a three-person drill, which included hauling a pretend victim out of the water.

“Drive him up the berm, let’s go! Stay on his butt, Dan!” he yelled.

Carrying the dead weight of a well-fed man on one’s back, out of the water and up the beach, is not for the unfit. Hence the group runs twice-weekly, 90-minute training sessions, beginning in June and culminating in a test in mid-August, for a total of 60 hours of summer training.

Several in the group on the beach were being recertified, required every three years. Five were being certified for the first time and the rest were there for the exercise and the camaraderie.

Each training routine resembled a finely choreographed dance. Every move and position rehearsed in grueling repetition, each person taking turns playing rescuer and victim, until they all moved as fluidly as water.

Asked if he has ever failed to save a drowning victim, Mr. Pucci only knocked on wood as an answer.

Matt Norklun has been a volunteer lifeguard for 10 years and a certified ocean rescuer for over 40. He was at the training session simply to stay sharp and in shape, which he clearly is. Mr. Norklun is a professional model, actor, and stuntman, though mostly “in my prettier days,” he said, adding that now he is a pilot for a seaplane company.

Thom Fleming of Montauk, who is 65, has been with East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue for 12 years and was up for recertification this year. He also volunteers with the fire department. “Yup, I haven’t had a pay raise in years,” he joked and provided personal insights by way of a string of epigrams: “Intelligent people run away from huge waves or a fire; I run into them.” “There’s always a never but there’s never an always.” “Dying for no reason is my biggest fear.” “Once a lifeguard, always a lifeguard.”

Make no mistake, this is no old boy’s club. Katie Osiecki is one of about 10 female East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue lifeguards, in addition to several auxiliaries who help with fund-raising and public relations. Ms. Osiecki is a captain, overseeing the safety at charity events and dealing with lifeguards on probation. Athletic and skilled, Ms. Osiecki admits that men will sometimes feign distress on the beach and ask for mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when they see her in a lifeguard’s ubiquitous red bikini.

Off the beach, she owns a land planning company and holds a masters degree in sustainable design from the University of Florida’s School of Architecture. Joining the volunteer lifeguards five years ago was partly for her love of water but mostly for that “incredible feeling of knowing you’ve helped a kid over their fear of the ocean, or an elderly person through the shore break.” She called the group “a second family,” then hurled herself back into the frothy surf.

While it is indeed comforting, as Chief Sarlo pointed out, to be in the midst of such competence at the beach, it is also a reminder of the innate clumsiness of most humans in the water, at least by comparison to these virtually aquatic creatures.

Those not as skilled in the surf or not able to volunteer can aid in the effort by donating online at ehvor.org or by check payable to Hampton Lifeguard Association with “ocean rescue” on the memo line, care of John Ryan Sr., 7 Meadow Lane, East Hampton 11937.

Matt Norklun, an East Hampton volunteer lifeguard for 10 years, enjoyed some downtime with Steve McMahon, a fellow volunteer rescue swimmer. Matthew Charron
Unloading a Jet Ski at Atlantic Avenue Beach in Amagansett for specialized training required for rescues in rough seas. About half of the volunteers are certified Jet Ski operators. Matthew Charron
Katie Osiecki, one of three East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue captains, went over plans with T.J. Calabrese, the organization’s chief, during its monthly meeting at the Dory Rescue Barn in Amagansett. Matthew Charron