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The East End’s Voice for Water Safety

Wed, 03/27/2024 - 18:34
A lifeguard for life, John Ryan Jr., seen here at a lifeguard competition at Main Beach in 2022, continues to pursue his goal of “waterproofing” the town, along with his father, John Sr.
Durell Godfrey

John Ryan Jr., the chief of East Hampton Town’s lifeguards for the past 34 years, was recently named as a delegate to the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States Lifesaving Association, providing East End lifeguards with an official voice at the national level for the first time.

Ryan, along with his father, John Sr., has for years worked tirelessly to assure that beachgoers here are properly educated about the ocean from an early age, and to make sure that the beaches designated for swimming are fully protected. He has been actively engaged with the U.S.L.A. for a long time, dating to 1999, the year that the Hampton Lifeguard Association first entered a team of seven juniors in the association’s national tournament. But he said he may have Mike Scanlon of Jones Beach, the nearest Mid-Atlantic delegate, to thank for his appointment.

East Hampton’s national junior lifeguard team now numbers 45, said Ryan, who over the years persuaded the U.S.L.A. to give the country’s junior lifeguard competitors “top priority,” which he thought they deserved. “It seemed like the officials back then didn’t have much of an interest in the junior part of the nationals, only in the senior guard competitions. They were taking only the top three juniors into the finals instead of the top eight, for instance — they were wanting to get it done. I argued that they shouldn’t be discouraging the kids, that they should remember we were talking about potential future lifeguards here, that they should be treating the juniors with the same intensity and professionalism as the seniors.”

Ryan agreed that East Hampton’s lifeguarding and water safety program, which begins with the 6-through-8-year-old Nippers, was “one of the best in the country.”

“Yes, it’s safe to say our beaches are some of the safest in the country,” he said, “but there are always ways in which we can improve. . . . There were a lot of failures in the ocean lifeguard certification tests — people would just show up — before my father started lifeguard training here years ago. The success rate is up now because of all the training we provide.”

The varied East Hampton Town-sponsored water safety courses now offered by the Hampton Lifeguard Association at the Y.M.C.A. East Hampton RECenter, the Maidstone Club, and at town and East Hampton Village beaches lead ultimately to still-water and ocean lifeguard certifications. “You have to be 15 to take the still-water test, and 16 to take the ocean test. It’s all there, all of it, on the town’s website, We have a junior cadet program now too, for those in their final year of junior lifeguarding. It’s an apprentice-type program for 15-year-olds. We teach all the responsibilities involved in being an ocean lifeguard. And at the end of the season there’s a capstone test. It’s the same ocean certification test the lifeguards take, the only difference being that they’re not old enough to be ocean-certified. It’s so they’ll be ready when they come to take the test the following summer — they’ll be confident.”

He added, regarding other water safety improvements here, that “to eliminate confusion when an emergency call comes in from someone renting a house along the Napeague stretch, say, all the access points are numbered now, all the way out to Montauk. We did that about 10 years ago. It’s not the locals, it’s the visitors, the vacationers. . . . Number one, you should never swim in an unprotected area.”

And it is still true, Ryan said, that “we’ve never had a death from drowning at a protected beach here.”

After retiring from teaching in 2022, he decided to get more involved with the U.S.L.A. by attending its national conferences, which in recent years have been held in Orlando, Fla., Hermosa Beach, Calif., and in Asheville, N.C. He’ll go to one in Pittsburgh at the end of April, and he just got back from a Mid-Atlantic region meeting in Avon-by-the-Sea, N.J. New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia comprise the Mid-Atlantic region, one of nine U.S.L.A. regions throughout the country.  Last fall, Ryan officiated, for the first time, at the International Surf Rescue Challenge on South Padre Island, Tex., a tournament that attracted teams from as far away as South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. 

“It’s great to work with the people involved who have the same concerns as me,” he continued. “We’ve discussed how we can do better in educating people about rip currents, how to lower our response times to swimmers in distress at unprotected beaches, and other beach safety matters like educating children about the dangers involved in digging holes . . .”

Having Jet Skis at the ready and drones operated by Federal Aviation Association-certified “pilots,” were further assuring beach safety here, Ryan said, as were the facts, he added, that there are webcams at town beaches and that the locations of rip currents are often posted on the East Hampton Town lifeguard website.

While he is proactive, Ryan said he could not say, despite all the steps taken, that the town was “waterproofed” yet. “We do our job, but there are always ways to better safeguard the public,” he said in parting. 

“I’m very happy for him,” Drew Smith, the chief of East Hampton Village’s guards, said. “I think he’ll be a great asset for the U.S.L.A. It’s a great achievement for someone who’s devoted his life to lifeguarding and waterproofing the East End.”

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