Two jet skiers bailed off their watercraft into pounding waves and complete darkness. A sailboat capsized in an area filled with swimmers. A man overdosed on cocaine and passed out in the waves. An infant suffered severe facial burns from spilled boiling water. And a motorcyclist went into shock from blood loss after a devastating crash on the highway. These emergencies, along with countless aquatic rescues, made up another day in the life of a few freelance lifeguards in Jacó, Costa Rica. Their primary goal was to prevent drowning deaths in an area of need but they ended up doing much more than that.
In 2014 and 2015, Ocean Lifeguard Frazier worked on Playa Jacó during his offseason of lifeguarding in Southern California. While this three-mile stretch of coast hosts many beachgoers every weekend, the whole beach fills up every year leading up to Easter Sunday, known in Latin America as Semana Santa. During this week, tens of thousands of Costa Ricans flood the country’s beaches to escape the heat and dryness typical of this time of year. It’s also common to have plenty of swell activity around the same period, bringing large waves and strong currents. These factors, combined with a general lack of swimming ability among the beachgoer population and a severe shortage of lifeguards, leads to many preventable drowning deaths every year. When Frazier worked his first Semana Santa on Playa Jacó, three people lost their lives to drowning over the course of a few days. These were deaths that could have been easily prevented by simply having more lifeguards available to staff the entire beach.
Less than a year later, a crew was assembled through the International Surf Lifesaving Association to guard the Aegean sea, where refugees were risking their lives to find a safer place to live. During this amazing trip, three guys were already planning their next one. Frazier had the dream of assembling a team to guard in Jacó during Semana Santa, Lydon had the close connection with the president of Lifeguards without Borders and Aurelio had extensive knowledge, experience in lifesaving and watercraft operations to teach. It was a perfect match. Two months later the boys set off to Costa Rica with a close friend of Norte’s, firefighter-paramedic and rescue-diver Bargas.
With the support of Lifeguards without Borders, the crew brought down much needed rescue equipment, from personal medical kits to binoculars. The team worked every day that week from sunrise to sunset. They logged hundreds of preventions, where they moved swimmers away from dangerous areas, ultimately preventing rescues from happening in the first place. They also had many rip current rescues as well as medical aids, treating sicknesses, drug overdoses and severe trauma. On Sunday night the crew celebrated; for the first time in about a decade there wasn’t a single drowning death on Playa Jacó during Semana Santa.
A few months later, Frazier and Lydon continued the lifesaving effort in Costa Rica. They two added Guard Garner to the crew and travelled two hours south from Jacó to work with a developing crew of lifeguards. This new project centered in the small surf town of Dominical. Though the beach receives less traffic than Jacó, the rip currents and waves are much stronger, creating for some of the gnarliest rescues imaginable. The currents were the strongest that Lydon and Frazier had ever experienced and those dangers of the beach showed in the local lifeguards’ proactive guarding style. Rescues are less and less frequent because the guards regularly move swimmers and beginner surfers (affectionately referred to as “pollos”) away from dangerous areas. For a week, the Lifeguards without Borders crew trained the local lifeguards and surf instructors in current lifesaving techniques, including in-water resuscitation, cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, spinal immobilization and wilderness medicine. The LWB crew also helped the local lifeguards take their first steps toward developing a Junior Lifeguard program by teaching ocean safety at the local elementary school. Frazier is returning to Dominical in October with a two guards from his agency to train the Dominical guards in ski rescues in heavy surf and continue the progress made in creating a Junior Lifeguard program for the local children. On top of this new project, the boys also hope to return to Jacó every Semana Santa with a growing crew of volunteer lifeguards to help out during that time of immense need.