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Report: Injuries up at Vero's beaches in 2013

STORY BY MARY SCHENKEL (Week of January 16, 2014)

The Vero Beach Lifeguard Association says that despite a sharp drop in beachgoers this past year, injuries were actually up at Jaycee Park, Humiston Park and South Beach Park, numbers that show the critical need for guarded beaches.

Additionally, another lifeguard tower is badly needed in the central beach area at Sexton Plaza, the lifeguard said in their annual report.

Despite a 22 percent drop in park attendance from last year, the number of minor medical incidents, such as treatment for jelly-fish stings, increased by 32 percent and major incidents, including the November shark attack and injuries from rough surf, increased by 40 percent.

The most dramatic increase was in the number of water rescues, which more than doubled, from 30 in 2012 to 71 in 2013.

Erik Toomsoo, president of the nonprofit Vero Beach Lifeguard Association, primarily attributes the rise in rescues to what is known as the “South Florida Trough,” a long and approximately 6-foot deep depression running parallel to the shoreline.

“The currents make some breaks in that trough and it creates huge rip currents,” said Toomsoo.  “We rescued 18 people in July alone; five in one day. These rip currents can form anywhere.  Sharks are an anomaly but the rip currents are real.”

Although swimmers are cautioned to swim at guarded beaches where lifeguards can monitor and alert beachgoers to possible dangers, budget cutbacks over the years have reduced the number of lifeguard hours on both city and county beaches. 

Tragedy struck this past year at South Beach Park, with the disappearance of a man from Hawaii who most likely fell victim to rip currents and whose body was never found. The incident is not in the VBLA report as he went missing outside of guarded hours. 

He had been swimming just north of the lifeguard tower, and Toomsoo is confident that under their watchful eyes, his apparent death might have been averted. 

“He was within a relative distance to the towers so I’m confident we could have seen him if it had been during covered hours.”

As counterintuitive as it may sound, Toomsoo says that most of the lifeguards’ rescues occur beyond the guarded areas. 

“It’s the people who don’t realize the inherent risks of swimming in the ocean who don’t swim near towers. That’s the reality of it. You don’t know what you don’t know. People who understand the power of the ocean realize that swimming near a lifeguard tower is a good idea.” 

A much happier outcome occurred in November with the rescue of Danny Vargas, who had been enjoying the rough surf on a bodyboard at a guarded beach. He was about 100-yards from shore when a shark chomped on his lower leg and severed his Achilles’ tendon. 

“Luckily we were here and brought him in and got him to medical equipment quickly.  He came to the tower the other day with his dad, his mom and his brother who were visiting from Peru,” says Toomsoo. “He came and thanked us again and showed his parents where it all happened.”  

An area of concern to the lifeguards is the long swath of beach along Ocean Drive which, despite an increase in popularity with tourists and families, remains largely unguarded. Humiston Park is only guarded five hours each day, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the next station is at Jaycee Beach, which is guarded until 5 p.m.

Adding to the dilemma is that the beach view north from the lifeguard tower at Humiston is obstructed. 

“We can’t see past the Driftwood. That leaves from Costa d’Este to the Spires that we can’t visually guard,” says Toomsoo, explaining that a tower at Sexton Plaza would eliminate that problem.

“Part of the issue is that Sexton Plaza is really a hotspot for the kids with skim boarding and things like that. That would basically fill the gap of having eyes on the entire beach. “