A few questions for someone who may save your life
By Dana Sachs
Photograph by Andrew Sherman
Jeremy Owens: Ocean rescue captain, Wrightsville Beach
Can you describe your job?
I’m the Ocean Rescue captain for Wrightsville Beach. Along with Dave Baker, the Ocean Rescue director, I hire and train lifeguards, maintain equipment, basically take care of everything as far as ocean rescue. And I’m also a fire captain.
How did you end up in this career?
When I was younger, I was always surfing. My father was actually a lifeguard at Wrightsville Beach back in the ’60s. I went to college in Hawaii and, when I came back here, I got hired on as a seasonal lifeguard in 2003. It became a passion.
Is there a fitness standard that people have to meet to
We have a tryout in the beginning of the season. They have a 1/2-mile swim and a 1-mile run. And then they do a series of mock rescues. We recruit a lot of UNCW swimmers. We get a lot of surfers. We get a lot of people that are generally into fitness, so they come to work in shape.
And how do you train them?
It’s a two-week training period for the new guards. They do an open-water USLA (United States Lifesaving Association) course and an emergency medical responder course. Our training is beach-specific. We get some really good swimmers that don’t know about the ocean so much. We teach them how to spot rip currents, how to make rescues in the ocean, how to pull active and passive victims out of the water, how to move people with spinal injuries. The ocean is an ever-changing environment. It’s very dynamic and powerful. We’re training our guards in that environment.
How many of your lifeguards are women?
I would say that, out of our 60 guards, we have about 10 women. They are tremendous athletes, completely capable of doing this job.
Do you think they have to deal with disrespect sometimes?
Probably. But when you see a 100-pound woman swim out and save a 220-pound Marine, then all doubts are gone, because that happens all the time.
What emergencies do you see at the beach?
Lacerations. Spinal emergencies. Drownings. Those are the major ones. But the most common incidents? Handing out Band-Aids, small lacerations, jellyfish stings. Stingray punctures. Heat emergencies. Pretty much any way people have found to cut themselves, they will. I don’t really want to talk about shark stuff, but we’ve had that as well.
Let’s talk about shark stuff.
Rip currents are much more dangerous. Way more common. That’s what people need to be concerned with out there. How to spot rip currents. How to get out of rip currents. And lightning’s much more dangerous, too. It kills many more people than sharks. When there’s lightning during the summer, we go up and down the beach and advise swimmers about the lightning.
They’re out there. It’s their environment. But it’s not something people need to be concerned with. We’re out there swimming every single day. I think the last time we had an issue was a fisherman trying to unhook a shark. That was a couple of years ago.
What happened to the fisherman?
They left before we even got down to the beach.
Have you noticed a change over the years in terms of the life of the beach?
As Wilmington grows, we’re seeing a tremendous increase in the number of people that come. If it’s a nice day, it doesn’t matter if it’s January — there are people out on the beach.
On busy days in the middle of the summer, how do lifeguards manage to keep an eye on all those people?
They have different techniques. Watching the rip currents, watching the individual swimmers. You’re looking at people, seeing their swimming ability as they enter the water. And grouping certain blocks of people together. If you’re watching the water, and a group of people are swimming together, if someone gets in trouble, people react to that. You watch the beach strand, crowds gathering.
Can you remember a specific incident when that happened?
A couple of years ago, at Johnnie Mercer’s Pier, I remember that the lifeguards saw a big reaction from the crowd. They saw someone in distress. The lifeguards responded to it and assisted, pulling a spinal injury out of the water. It was a Marine who had been body surfing in the shore break. The waves drove him into the sand. We pulled him out of the water and immobilized him. He survived.
What happens if there’s a tragedy? How does your team support each other?
People talk about it. You look at it more as a problem, and how we could have done better. I think that’s the best way we have to handle it. From each tragedy, we try to have a learning experience and growth.
It does seem like this is a job that could weigh on you in the middle of the night.
Yeah. I remember the first drowning that I had. It was my first day as captain. The beach was turned over to me. A guy drowned next to Johnnie Mercer’s Pier. It weighed very heavily on me. The first thing I did was call my family and talk to them. Afterward, I was, like, “What can I do to make this not happen again?” So, when we have lifeguards in the stands, we diligently keep swimmers away from the pier. That’s probably my pet peeve about the beach — that one area — keeping people away from the pier. That was how I handled that problem. You kind of get used to the responsibility, but I think the first incident you have like that is the hardest to get through. You never forget. And you always remember how much responsibility you have.
So, you’ve had a lot of experience going out into the water to save people.
Yeah. One day, we had 22 people caught in a rip during one of the hurricanes. We swam out. We’d get them on our buoy. We have a Jet-Ski that will pick them up as well.
It was during a hurricane?
That was during Hurricane Bill a couple of years ago.
Those are times when people are warned away from the water.
We fly red flags.
How does that feel?
When you save everyone, it feels great.
But, I mean, how does it feel when you’re putting up red flags and people still go into the water?
It keeps you on edge.
You’re very unemotional about it. I can imagine feeling some frustration.
We just accept it as our job. Those are the days when you’re going to be on edge all day long. But, to be out there and save people — that’s what these guys live for.
Dana Sachs’ latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.