NEW BUFFALO — The New Buffalo public beach is one of the few in this area with lifeguards on duty during the summer of 2021.
New Buffalo Parks Director Kristen D’Amico said the city’s six lifeguards have been on duty since Memorial Day weekend and currently keep watch over the swimming area Thursday through Sunday.
“Starting in July they will do Thursday to Monday,” she said, adding that a crew of six isn’t enough to cover all seven days of the week.
Back from the 2020 staff are this year’s head lifeguard Gavin Ales, Alex Tellez, Evan Moyer, and Carey-Rose Tharp.
New for 2021 are Zoe Price and Nate Middlebrook.
D’Amico said one of the challenges for 2021 was getting lifeguards re-certified, a process that was not offered in 2020 due to COVID but was achieved this year at the Bridgman Aquatic Center.
There’s also a deeper connection with that facility, housed at Bridgman High School, as Ales, Tellez and Moyer have been members of the cooperative swim team that practices and competes at the Aquatic Center pool. Price, a senior-to-be at New Buffalo High School, joined the Bee swim team for the 2020-21 season.
Tellez said as busy as the 2020 beach season was, it seems even busier so far this year.
“The last couple of weekends it’s been pretty busy down here,” D’Amico said, noting that the lake waters were very cold on Memorial Day weekend.
During their morning warm-ups the lifeguards practice rescues with one playing the part of a distressed swimmer and another jumping off the tower, grabbing a paddle board and retrieving the flailing “rescuee.”
They also worked on some escape and control moves in case a lifeguard encounters a panicking swimmer.
Ales said the guards participated in a June 15 Great Lakes Surf Rescue training session in St. Joseph with their peers from Silver Beach and Bethel Beach.
“We learned a bunch of new information about guarding in general,” he said.
Ales said there have already been a few instances this year where beach-goers have required first aid.
He said the sand bar where swimmers can stand is pretty far offshore and depths reach 7 to 8 feet between that area and the beach.
“People will go out, and they don’t realize how tired they are … start swimming back in and then they’re stuck,” he said.
That situation led to a recent incident where Middlebrook and Tharp had to retrieve two swimmers who ran out of breath in cold waters and a strong current while returning from the sand bar.
“I jumped in, took the paddleboard out, and got them back to shore nice and safely,” Middlebrook said.
Ales said the lifeguards are keeping inflatables close to shore this year this summer because they can lead to swimmers getting in trouble in various ways.
New for 2021 at the New Buffalo Public Beach is a first aid tent located at the end of the boardwalk that leads to the beach.
D’Amico said one of the lifeguards is stationed in the tent to talk with beach-goers.
“That’s actually been helpful, because then a lot of people aren’t going up to the tower (which) takes away from the lifeguard’s focus on the water,” she said.
There’s also a new Safe Kids Station at the main lifeguard tower which includes lifejackets that can be borrowed for swimming and a large sign with information in rip currents, color-coded flags and other aspects of Lake Michigan safety.
D’Amico said it’s important for swimmers to realize the hazards that exist in the big lake.
“It’s worse than the ocean in some respects,” she said. “Right here we have a lot of currents, you’ll get a structural current, an along-shore current, an off-shore current, a river current.”
The New Buffalo public beach is larger this year as Lake Michigan and Galien River levels are down about a foot.
D’Amico said that means more people can be on the beach, so the lifeguards will sometimes have more people to watch.