WESTERLY — Matt Stanley, Abby Vetrovec and Lea Koppermann, each equipped with a rescue torp, jumped off the Kubota utility vehicle they were riding in and plunged into the choppy Misquamicut surf Monday, swimming about 200 yards out where three men were struggling to keep their heads above water.
The scene, which played out on a usually unguarded section of beach between Westerly Town Beach and Seaside Beach Club, was a drill. The struggling swimmers were also lifeguards with Westerly Surf Rescue. The exercise, which involved the Westerly municipal lifeguards along with members of the Misquamicut and Watch Hill Fire Departments and Charlestown Rescue, was intended to get all four organizations working together and ready for the real thing.
"We've been really successful in the past, but if you're going to make mistakes it's better to make them today during a drill and learn from them," said Capt. Ray Elterich of the Misquamicut Fire Department, which keeps its rescue boat in a slip adjacent to Weekapaug Breachway. The department also has a jet ski. Both were used in the drill.
Technically the Westerly Town Beach lifeguards, who are assigned to both the new and old town beaches, are not responsible for the area where the drill occurred. But Carl Critz and Brian Skorupski, who both supervise the lifeguards, said the guards who sit in Chair 10, closest to the unstaffed area, are trained to remain alert. Critz, who has worked at Misquamicut for 11 years, estimated the town's guards participate in at least a few rescues on the unguarded stretch of beach each summer.
"It's nice to bridge that gap," Critz said. "We're prepared. The people in Chair 10 know that they keep an eye out."
"It's not our jurisdiction per say but we feel a moral obligation," Skorupski said.
Skorupski served as one of the victims, along with Logan Hellwig and Jake Mueller.
Stanley, Vetrovec and Koppermann cut through the two-foot surf with relative ease before reaching the three victims. The three guards stayed with the victims until the Misquamicut rescue boat arrived. The Jet Ski, operated by Tom Jasulavic, a member of the Misquamicut Fire Department, brought some of the participants back to shore. Jasulavic keeps the Jet Ski at his Purple Ape business on Winnapaug Road. The jet ski takes about eight minutes to get to the area, while the department's rescue boat takes about 10 minutes, according to Elterich.
Stanley, who is in his fourth year as a lifeguard and his first as a captain, said the conditions were not particularly challenging. "It went smoothly. It's definitely good to get the practice in," Stanley said.
A real-life rescue involving so many of the local departments at the same time would most likely involve an especially calamitous event such as a plane crash or a large boat losing passengers. Charlestown Ambulance Rescue Service keeps its 23-foot inflatable rigid-hull boat docked at Ninigret Pond. The three departments that participated in the drill cover an area from South Kingstown to Watch Hill Point.
"It's a great opportunity for the three departments to train and work together," said Andrew Kettle, Charlestown Ambulance Rescue Service's chief.
The Charlestown service tries to have a trained rescue swimmer aboard any time the boat is dispatched, Kettle said.
The surf rescue crew hopes to soon get an all-terrain vehicle dedicated solely for rescues at the beach and plans to request one in its next budget submission to the Town Council. Critz said an ATV would perform better on the sand and would not be used for beach maintenance duties like the Kubota.
The drill was the first time in the memories of those who participated that the town lifeguards took part in a mock exercise with the departments.
"The more you drill, the more you're ready, Critz said.