Sunday, May 10, 2009

Lifeguards For Wasaga Beach

WASAGA BEACH - Fourteen kilometres of what’s billed as the largest freshwater beach in the world and not a lifeguard in sight.
Wasaga Beach’s waterfront is enjoyed by millions of tourists each year who have been swimming at their own risk since 1996 when lifeguard patrols were eliminated by the provincial park to save money.
Since then four people have drowned at the beach including 13-year-old Suboui Ta who drowned at Beach Area Five Sunday after an offshore wind tipped the dinghy she was playing in.
Parks officials say drownings haven’t increased since the lifeguard patrol was eliminated.
They say drownings are unfortunate but inevitable given the size of the waterfront and the vast numbers of people who use it.
But at least one former lifeguard and his Olympic swimming champion spouse believe otherwise.
“Part of the experience of Wasaga Beach is to come here with the family - it’s supposed to be a safe beach,” said silver medalist Elaine Tanner, standing on the crowded shore of Beach Area One.
Both Tanner and her husband John Watt, a former Wasaga Beach lifeguard, are frustrated by the lack of beach supervision.
They’re particularly upset with the drowning last weekend.
“We used to rescue kids who blew out into the bay daily,” said Watt, a Wasaga Beach lifeguard from 1969 to 1971.
Watt believes park rangers and the OPP marine unit are doing all they can, and indeed are trained in artificial respiration skills, but are understaffed and unprepared to handle the large tourist population.
Watt estimates it would cost about $100,000 to cover the beach with 20-odd lifeguards. He feels the province and municipality could easily come up with the money and could ask local corporate sponsors to contribute as well.
“How many little kids have to die before they wake up?” Tanner asks.
Wasaga Beach’s Chamber of Commerce estimates more than two million people visit the beach-side town every summer. It’s estimated each visitor spends about $100 a day at the various attractions, accommodations and restaurants, said Trudie McCrea, spokeswoman at the chamber.
Mark Shoreman, superintendent of the provincial parks, says the program was cut in 1996 because of the province’s financial restraints.
“Clearly it was an issue of economics,” said Shoreman.
After patrolling the waters in one of the park’s two boats, Shoreman said the park staff of eight are doing the best job they can to make the beaches safe. But he questions the effectiveness of a fully staffed lifeguard corps, noting the number of drownings has remained constant with or without lifeguards.
“How many guards would make it safe?” asked Shoreman. “Compared to any five years with patrols on, the stats would be the same.”
Shoreman said improved public education about the dangers of drowning will prevent swimming fatalities, and life jackets are for rent at several beach locations.
“Drowning in non-swimmers is a quick, sudden event,” Shoreman explained. “It doesn’t take 10 seconds for someone to drown.
“That huge, huge beach area covers more than six miles of sand. To suggest however many guards could monitor that much activity is providing a false sense of security.”
He remembers when lifeguards would complain parents would park their children near the lifeguard post and leave them for the day.
Nicholas De Turse is one parent who feels the park fees for using the beach should be used to pay for lifeguards. On this day, Nicholas and his wife Deirdre were less than five-feet away from Haley, their four-year-old daughter, yet she still managed to slip underwater, struggling to regain her footing.
Nicholas deftly scooped her up and she sputtered out a mouthful of water.
“There should be lifeguards,” said De Turse, hugging his daughter. “For what we paid for parking - $10 - it should cover lifeguards.”
But some families don’t like the idea of restricted play at the beach.
“We have more liberty, because we can bring out our toys and and go farther out without lifeguards around,” said Denis Richard.
He does feel, however, there should be certain sections of the beach monitored by lifeguards, so families can choose.
Watt and Tanner simply want to see the program restored to its former levels, so they can wander the beaches without casting nervous glances towards the water.
Lifesaving Resources

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