The Lifeguard Dilemma

According to published US Lifesaving Association statistics, lifeguards at US beaches made 47555 rescues in 2021. Over that same time 65 people drowned at unguarded beaches.

How many of the 47555 would have drowned if not rescued?

Of course, we don’t and can’t know, but one thing is clear: many more families, friends, and colleagues would have been devastated if not for the work of the USLA lifeguards.

The USLA estimates the chance of fatally drowning at a protected beach at a paltry 1 in 18 million. Choose a beach with lifeguards if you want the best chance of swimming in the ocean and coming out alive.

And yet…

Swimming at the guarded beach comes with a tradeoff — freedom.

You can’t “do whatever you want, whenever you want” at a guarded beach regardless of your ability as a swimmer or your desire to take on risk. If the surf is too rough or the tide is ripping, red flags fly. Get out too far, and the whistles blow. Too many people? Don’t fish or surf here.

The lifeguards must assess the risk and make decisions to restrict freedoms based on the desires and abilities of the collective, not of you specifically. What’s the best decision for the group?

You, however, do have a choice. You can seek out that gritty, unfettered, and often beautiful stretch of shoreline with the big waves. Just remember, though, that you have no safety net except for your own abilities.



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John Macdonald

John Macdonald


Obsesrver, Life-Curious, Beginner — Writing to try to figure out the stuff in my head