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Grand Bend lifeguard raising concerns about water safety after Labour Day

Most of this summer's rescues were swimmers attempting to save others. A long-time lifeguard at Grand Bend beach is worried about what will happen when patrols end after Labour Day.

This summer, the majority of water rescues involved saving two to three swimmers at a time

Scott Ruddle and Kazuto Noda at Grand Bend's Main Beach. Ruddle's been a lifeguard for 34 years, and works as a paramedic with Middlesex-London Paramedic Services.  (Submitted by Scott Ruddle)

Most of the water rescues at Grand Bend's main beach this summer have been people attempting to save others, according to long-time lifeguard Scott Ruddle. The 23-year veteran with Grand Bend Beach Patrol is worried about what could happen after lifeguards wrap up the season on Labour Day.

This season, beach patrol performed 40 rescues, saving 68 people. 

"It's been a pretty big summer," he said, adding that the average rescue required pulling two to three people from the water.

"People think they can swim, but three foot waves can be disorienting," said Ruddle.

Surfers riding waves washing over Kincardine's pier on August 29, 2020. (John Boulanger)

If a child in a life jacket is carried away by a current, often an adult will jump in to help, regardless of their rescue skills or if they have proper floatation themselves.

During the pandemic summer, many Ontarians have been enjoying the outdoors, through camping trips, hiking and beach days. Ruddle believes people making a long trip to the lake might be more likely to try to get a swim in, no matter the conditions. 

"We aren't rescuing people from Grand Bend. It's Kitchener, Brampton, London and further away," he said.

Grand Bend's Beach Patrol performed 40 rescues this summer, saving 68 people (Submitted by Scott Ruddle )

The lifeguard frequently sees people also get into trouble while trying to retrieve items, such as a football that's been blown into deeper water, or while floating on an inflatable raft that might be swept away by winds. 

"We get a current that goes along our pier and carries people into deeper water," said Ruddle. 

No lifeguards on duty after Labour Day

The concern is big enough that Ruddle has started conversations with his Beach Captain about keeping lifeguards on duty for September weekends, especially with families experiencing an extended summer due to back-to-school delays.

Waves crashing against the shoreline at Pioneer Park in Bayfield, Ont. (Terri Low)

"We've never done that before," said Ruddle. "If September weather stays hot and warm, I know there will still be people in Grand Bend, with nobody up in the lifeguard towers."

"I have massive concerns," he added. 

'Not enough money informing tourists of risks'

Jamie Racklyeft shares these fears. After his own near-drowning experience in Lake Michigan in 2012, he formed the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium, made up of nearly a thousand first responders, community leaders and water enthusiasts.

"Communities will spend millions of dollars on tourism, but not enough money informing tourists of risks," he said. 

The Great Lakes can be deceptive because they don't have sharks or big waves like an ocean, said Racklyeft. The period between waves is much shorter and swimmers are less buoyant than in saltwater. 

"You don't have a few seconds to catch your breath," said Ruddle, adding that wind-generated waves don't usually synchronize into a pattern. 

Tips for staying safe

Racklyeft said a crucial mistake people make, when trying to rescue others, is failing to grab a floatation device first.

"Grab a boogie board, a surfboard - anything that floats," he said. "Keep it between you and the victim because they can panic and grab you, drowning you," he said.

The Great Lakes can be deceptive because they don't have sharks or big waves like an ocean, said Racklyeft. (Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium )

Ruddle advises people visiting the lake to choose a lifeguarded beach, where you have people watching over you, plus local information and signage. Even adults should wear life jackets, he said. 

Racklyeft added that beach-goers tend to think about snacks and proximity to bathrooms while planning a day trip, but don't think about the currents or the shoreline. It's a good idea to take note of where you actually are, in case you need to contact emergency services. 

Ruddle also advises people to check the marine forecast and beach webcams before making a trip. 

"If the waves are high, do something different. Go to the splash pad, go to the kids museum, watch the water and throw stones," he said. 

"Don't think about challenging yourself with six foot waves."

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