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Busy weekend sees record number of ocean rescues

JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – Lifeguards are flying red flags high Tuesday, warning people to stay out of the water after Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue saved two dozen people from the water over Memorial Day weekend.

St. Johns County also had quite a weekend with marine rescue performing 32 simmers in distress water rescues. 

Farther south, on much bigger beaches, a reported 500 people were pulled from Flagler, Volusia and Brevard counties combined in a 24-hour period from Sunday to Monday.

Conditions were still rough Tuesday though the surf did come down a little, but the wind was still blowing on shore and the structure of the bottom of the ocean remained the same, which, especially during changing tides, could create dangerous rip-currents.

Officials warned swimmers to stay near lifeguards and ask if you have questions.

Carla and Steven Coultas who were celebrating their 8th wedding anniversary at Jacksonville Beach experienced those rough conditions, with the ocean beating them up a little bit while trying to enjoy the beach.

"The water was just crazy. It really was. Just seeing people standing in it, everyone was getting knocked around. It was a lot more intense than any other time I've been to the beach and we're both from Florida," Steven Coultas said.

Of the 24 people saved by Jacksonville Ocean Rescue one was saved Friday, four on Saturday, 10 on Sunday and nine more on Monday.

"That's pretty amazing but I believe it with the conditions that have been out here and with how overcrowded it's been. There have been a lot of people," Carla Coultas said.

Capt. Rob Emahiser with Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue said they rescued more people this Memorial Day weekend than in years past because conditions were so rough on such a gorgeous weekend that drew big crowds.

"I won't go out far. I only go out to maybe my knees just to be careful. Because the current in the water is so strong and it's so forceful. At any second you can get swept away," beachgoer Fela Minor said.

Emahiser said rip currents often form where waves are not breaking which can make the ocean deceiving.

"So it actually appears calmer. It can actually appear like one of the best places to swim. So a person may not recognize the discoloration in the water. It's kind of subtle. Here on the East Coast, rip currents are not always as obvious as where there's bigger surf," Emahiser said.

Those deceptive conditions are why paying attention to a lifeguards' whistle is so important. They are often trying to direct swimmers away from nearing rip currents that people in the ocean can't see.

"That's how we're able to keep our numbers so low. A lot of other areas may not necessarily do as much prevention as we do, but we feel it's worth it because a dry lifeguard is a good lifeguard," Emahiser said.

Though so many people were saved, there were a couple of stories of tragedy when two people were lost at sea after swimming in areas without the protection of lifeguards.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officially called off the search Tuesday for 52-year-old George Cooper and 11-year-old Na'im Boykin after they were lost swimming off of Little Talbot Island.

According to Emahiser, places like Little Talbot Island, with no lifeguard and near an inlet are the most dangerous places to swim, even when conditions aren't incredibly rough.

"Especially on the south side of the island and especially when conditions are like they were this weekend. It's absolutely the worst place to swim. The inlet is very deep and close to the southern end of the island so it's one of the worst places to swim. especially on an outgoing tide," Emahiser said.  

For swimmers caught in a rip current it can be easy to panic, but lifeguards say it is imperative to remain calm.

Fighting against the current does not work with the incredible power of the ocean so swimmers are told not to fight the current, but to swim with it and then parallel to the shore, floating if exhaustion begins to set in. Rip currents are usually very narrow allowing swimmers to get out of harm's way in relatively short order.