August 25, 2016

Ocean Beach’s long overdue need for lifeguards

The womp, womp, womp of a low flying helicopter sends chills down the spine of residents in my neighborhood, San Francisco’s Outer Sunset. The sound could very well be an emergency response to a desperate man or women being pulled out to sea by the strong rip currents of Ocean Beach. In the past four months four people have died, including two this week and in April the tragic death of two 16 year old boys who were simply wading in waist-deep water. Every year similar incidents occur at Ocean Beach. While the unique geography of Ocean Beach is primarily to blame, the City of San Francisco and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) have continued to bury their heads, refusing to take steps towards improving safety at the beach, costing multiple lives year after year.

Sand, ocean and sky on a mid afternoon day at Ocean Beach

Springtime is particularly dangerous at Ocean Beach. Warm weather brings crowds – many who live further inland with little experience in the ocean. Beach goers are tempted into the ocean while powerful mid-period swells increase the likelihood of deadly rips occurring. Ocean Beach, which sits at the mouth of the Bay, is one of the most treacherous beaches in the world. A combination of strong tidal flows – which create powerful currents and rips – cold water (on average in the mid ‘50s), large open ocean swells, and inclement weather such fog and wind – even on mild days there’s the potential to create deadly conditions.

Ocean Beach spans two miles, making it difficult to protect beach visitors over the full expanse. But the few safety resources that are in place have proven themselves ineffective: Signage, warning people of rips, go unnoticed; and the single lifeguard truck that occasionally patrols can’t possibly be at the right place at the right time. Safety improvements are long overdue and it’s no longer acceptable for the City of San Francisco or the GGNRA to ignore these tragedies, or claim, as they do, that lifeguards would “encourage people to get into that water.”

The vast majority of these tragedies occur in a very small area, in the less than a mile of coastline bounded by Kelly’s Cove to the north and Lincoln Ave to the south which includes significant parking and visitor accommodations (Golden Gate Park, Beach Chalet, and Cliff House). Safety improvements including more visible signage, other education resources (maybe visitor guides providing warnings at beach entrances) and most importantly permanent lifeguards in lookout towers (at least staffed on particularly popular or dangerous days) could significantly reduce the number of deaths that occur every year.

Every year my heart breaks with the news of another life lost at the beach I love. It’s been occurring entirely too long – an article documenting nearly identical loss of life can be found on SF Gate from twenty years ago. While the ocean will never be 100% safe we deserve better safety measures at Ocean Beach. Please take a minute to sign this petition which demands improvements from the city of San Francisco and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.