In an unusual incident, 13 swimmers were pulled from the water off Wasque Wednesday afternoon after several people were caught in the current and carried offshore.
The swimmers were rescued by the Edgartown fire department boat and a town shellfish department boat, Edgartown police chief Antone Bettencourt said. He did not have the names of the swimmers, but said there were at least three separate groups of people involved. “It wasn’t one group of people,” the chief said.
Edgartown parks administrator Marilyn Wortman told the Gazette Friday that three Edgartown lifeguards from South Beach, Billy Reagan, Sam Stelmach and Ryan Leandro, were the first to respond. Equipped with rescue cans, they reached the swimmers in the water.
Ms. Wortman said the lifeguards were accompanied by Kirsten Meehan who was on a paddleboard.
Chris Kennedy, Martha’s Vineyard superintendent for the Trustees of Reservations, said that Frank Secret, a ranger monitoring the beach, which does not have a lifeguard, heard a call for help from a bystander. An individual who had been standing on an outer sand bar had been carried out by the current of an outgoing tide. “He noted that the person was clearly in trouble,” he said. He said it seemed that a second person attempted to reach the first swimmer but got carried in the tide as well. Mr. Secret called Norton Point ranger Rick Dwyer, who in turn called the communications center.
While there is temptation for the ranger to jump into the water for a rescue, Mr. Kennedy said, the rangers did what they are supposed to do: keep an eye on the swimmers from the land. There were a number of people in the water, Mr. Kennedy said. Many had boogie boards, and someone was able to get boogie boards to the original two swimmers. “The first victim and the first responder both had boogie boards but were being pulled out,” he said. The other people on boogie boards who were in the area of the sand bar also got into trouble and the current began carrying them off shore as well, he said and there were six people in the current floating in the water on boogie boards.
A number of other swimmers were there on the beach and started to wade out, he said.
An off-duty Boston firefighter grabbed a board and got out and helped, Mr. Kennedy said. At that time, boats arrived and started to collect the swimmers.
The shellfish boat rescued the original two swimmers who had been “pulled off several hundred feet,” Mr. Kennedy said.
The call came in at about 3:23 p.m., he said, and the first group of eight were reported as out of the water at 3:45 p.m, Chief Bettencourt said.
Chief Bettencourt and Mr. Kennedy praised drills and training for preparing various organizations to deal with such a situation in a remote location.
“Luckily we didn’t have a tragic day,” Mr. Kennedy said. ““It was a hot beach day and a lot of people at the beach.” Because the water looked calm, he said, people can be “lulled into a sense that there was no danger and nothing to worry about.” He praised the rescue system that was in place and the first responders.
But an extremely high tide has increased the amount of water going through the breach. He urged swimmers to stay close to shore unless they are closely watching the tidal stages.
He said the Trustees had posted advisory signs, and recently added additional signs, warning about the current. Swimmers need to take a responsibility not to go beyond their limitations.
A short time later, a young girl was caught up in a current at Long Point beach, Mr. Kennedy said. She made it back to shore safely.
Chief Bettencourt said the departments are well trained to handle these incidents, with a couple of drills a year involving the police, fire department, Trustees of Reservations, lifeguards and shellfish department. “A whole bunch of different town organizations came together,” he said.
The shellfish department is especially well-equipped for rescues in the area of the Katama breach, he said. “They know the water well,” he said. “They are down there all day long.”
The Edgartown police boat is out of the water for repairs, but the other boats were able to respond quickly. Mr. Kennedy noted that Edgartown lifeguards also arrived on the scene.
“It’s definitely unusual to have 13 different people needing rescue at the same time, there’s no question about that,” he said.