HAMPTON BEACH, N.H. — Jim Donahue, the chief of lifeguards, stands before a bank of windows, three stories above Hampton Beach, scanning the shore with a pair of binoculars.
It’s 2 p.m. on Friday, two hours before low tide. This is when it would happen, when dangerous rip currents could form and carry unsuspecting swimmers out to sea.
For three-quarters of a mile in either direction, the beach is jam-packed. On a busy day, Hampton Beach and nearby North Beach can draw up to 75,000 people. Everywhere you look the water is full of children splashing and riding boogie boards in gently rolling waves.
“If it was going to kick in, this would be one of the spots right over here,” he said, gesturing toward the water in front of the lifeguard headquarters, where a deep channel can funnel the outgoing tide into a powerful, fast-moving current away from the beach. “But it’s not happening today.”
On Wednesday, Hampton Beach lifeguards rescued 48 people from rip currents. On Thursday, they pulled another 18 people from the water. That’s more than they rescue all season some years. Still, it’s far from the worst single stretch in the beach’s history. During one three-day period in 1985, lifeguards made 125 rescues.
No one was injured during this week’s rescues, and no one was in serious danger, Donahue said.
Most of the rescues were in waist-deep water, and only a handful required lifeguards to actually swim after the person, Donahue said.But the sheer number has people talking.
“Wednesday was a situation where we had two-to-three-foot surf, warm water, an east wind, which the rip currents like on this beach — and a huge crowd,” Donahue said. “Whenever you get a big crowd, you’re going to have a lot of nonswimmers and a lot of poor swimmers, and some of them just needed some help.”
Marty Cunniff, a Medford firefighter who has a house not far from the beach, saw the action on Wednesday and said the staff was on top of it.
“They were pulling them out one after another,” he said. “No one looked like they were in a life-threatening situation. They just needed a little bit of help from the lifeguards.”
Those rescued ranged from children to a 76-year-old woman. About 90 percent of them were boogie boarders, Donahue said.
Experienced beach swimmers are taught to be on the lookout for rip currents and, if they get caught in one, to swim parallel to the beach until they’re clear of the current rather than fighting the current and trying to swim to shore.
Donahue has been a lifeguard on this beach since 1960 and has seen some serious rip currents. There are four known deep-water channels here, channels where water from crashing waves seeks the fastest way back out to sea. Lifeguards at stations positioned near each of these channels keep a close eye on the conditions. If rip currents appear and are deemed dangerous, they’ll close those areas to swimming. That did not happen this week.
For the 40 lifeguards on staff, 28 of whom are on duty each day patrolling the two neighboring beaches, Wednesday and Thursday did not feel out of the ordinary, according Kendall Kaspar, a senior lifeguard who was commanding the radio from the windows at headquarters on Wednesday when the rescues occurred.
“We’re well-trained, and rip current rescues are fairly routine,” he said.
Every morning at 8:45 a.m., Donahue puts the lifeguards through physical training. A typical day involves a 2½-mile run on soft sand, then a half-mile swim in the open ocean.
With more beach weather for the weekend, Donahue said he was not particularly worried. He saves that for the end of the season, when most of his lifeguards have gone back to high school and college, and hurricane season has begun, bringing with it the potential for strong surf.
“Those are the days I dread,” he said.