NEW BUFFALO — The summer of 2019 has been anything but slow for the lifeguard team at New Buffalo’s city beach along Lake Michigan.
Head Lifeguard Faith Hoekstra, the sole guard for most of the summer of 2018, has been joined by Gavin Ales and brothers Andrew and Alex Tellez this year.
New Buffalo Parks Director Kristen D’Amico said efforts to build up a lifeguard crew for 2019 began last fall, and Hoekstra (who also does training for Great lakes Surf and Rescue) did the training.
“A lot of them were pool lifeguards so we had to get them all trained to be open-water certified,” she said.
Hoekstra said a serious rescue took place on the first Sunday in August.
A man was drowning near a swim buoy and Andrew Tellez responded — pulling the submerged swimmer onto a rescue board.
“When he got there he was three or four feet underwater,” Hoekstra said. “He was holding on to to the swim zone buoy, and when he let go he just couldn’t swim.”
She said the man was still breathing and soon recovered after being brought back to shore
“The water was clear so I could still see him. I did have to pull him up from underwater,” Andrew Tellez recalled.
Although the Aug. 4 rescue was the most serious of the summer so far, it was far from an isolated incident.
“We’ve done a ton of rescues (about 8 in July alone),” Hoekstra said. “Most of them were related to offshore winds — people just can’t get back to shore ... towing them back in.”
She said some swimmers are just new to Lake Michigan and don’t understand the potential dangers, adding that paddleboard people will sometimes get so far out onto the lake that the Sheriff’s Department patrol boat has to be called to retrieve them.
“It’s a lot easier to get in trouble at the beach than people realize. Even people that are good swimmers can still find themselves in trouble,” Andrew Tellez noted.
The Tellez brothers and Ales all have ties to Bridgman High School. Alex Tellez is going into his junior year there while Andrew graduated in 2019 and Ales in 2017. The three have pool lifeguarding experience, but this is their first year of “open-water” work.
Alex said he was lifeguarding at the Bridgman Aquatic Center before taking the job in New Buffalo and plans to return there once school starts.
He said there are significant difference between guarding a pool and a beach swim area.
“At the pool the most you have to do usually is tell people not to run,” Alex added.
Ales said he is going into Coast Guard Reserve “boot camp” this fall but he hopes to continue with the summer program in New Buffalo next year. Andrew and Alex also indicated they would like to return.
Hoekstra said she hopes to have even more lifeguards next summer.
She is a seven-year veteran of surf lifeguarding, having also worked at Assateague Island, at Gateway National Recreation Area in New York and New Jersey, and overseas in Wales, United Kingdom, and at a beach near Auckland in New Zealand.
“Faith is a great boss. I can’t even imagine her being out here by herself last year ... It’s difficult with the four people we have out here,” Ales said.
Arrayed out in front of the two lifeguard stands at the New Buffalo beach are tools of the trade such as a kayak and rescue board, rescue tubes, a torpedo tube, fins. There’s a also a pile of sand below the stand to jump onto for a soft landing if an emergency situation requires a quick response.
Faith said most mornings start out with the guards doing a series of drills in the water involving the rescue equipment.
Atop the flagpole at the edge of the beach parking lot is a flag (green for good swimming conditions, yellow if caution is recommended and red if dangerous waters await) along with a wind sock. A board near the New Buffalo Beach Club offers more detailed information including water temperature.
D’Amico said there have been quite a few red flag days along with some very busy days in June and July with about a thousand people at the beach.
Hoekstra noted that New Buffalo’s city beach isn’t significantly smaller despite the high lake levels because the harbor breakwater causes sand to accumulate in the northeast side (and do just the opposite on the other side).