THE HISTORY OF SURF-LIFESAVING IN THE
TOWN OF EAST HAMPTON
East Hampton has a rich history of everyday heroes, ordinary men and women who do extraordinary things. Since the 1770’s, when local volunteers patrolled the coastlines, these heroes courageously saved many lives in the waters surrounding the Town of East Hampton. In 1848, The United States Life-Saving Service, a governmental agency, formed with the mission to save the lives of shipwrecked seafarers and their distressed passengers. Then, in 1915, they merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the United States Coast Guard.
Fast forward to 1978, when a group of local, courageous East Hampton baymen organized themselves, forming what was to become the East Hampton Baymen’s Association Dory Rescue Squad, a volunteer organization that grew out of humanitarian efforts to protect the lives of people in distress in the waters around the Town.
Due to their unique fishing skills of haul-seining, a fishing practice that required specialized knowledge of how to deal with powerful surf, these men provided emergency response teams for the Town’s lengthy ocean coastline. Thanks to their unending commitment, their knowledge and skills saved many lives. At its peak, the group had 130 members, all men.
Each year, the Dory Rescue Squad would drill with the East Hampton Ambulance preparing for any water emergency. These drills involved the transporting of the dory boat onto the beach, positioning the truck and dory, and timing a safe launch.
In 1990, however, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) banned haul-seining, a fishing practice that provided livings for many of the local baymen. Haul-seining was a unique way of fishing that involved the use of 20 to 25-foot flat-bottomed wooden dory boats that had a narrow bow and a narrow stern. The baymen would launch their dory boats from the beach into the surf. Once out far enough, the fishermen laid seine nets in a U-shaped pattern. They would then bring the net ends together, and row back to shore where the trapped fish, mostly Striped Bass, would be flopping in the huge nets. The baymen realized, with the DEC ban on haul-seining, there was no need to pass their skills and knowledge to their children. Their fishing practice and livelihood were now deemed illegal.
Sadly, in 2005, when the group disbanded, there were only 17 members left.
In the spring of 2003, a group of local, ocean certified lifeguards formed a rescue organization called East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue. These dedicated, tenacious lifeguards and ocean rescue swimmers, train year-round to carry on the time-honored tradition of surf lifesaving that was passed on to them by the United States Life Saving Service and the East Hampton Baymen’s Association Dory Rescue Squad.
The transition from a rowed dory boat, to a motorized dory boat, to a personal watercraft, took place over many years.
From East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue’s inception, the role of the organization was to provide a quick response of certified lifeguards to water emergencies for swimmers in distress. For its first six years, the organization was seasonal, from May 1st to November 1st. The personal watercraft, PWC, became a necessity after the disbanding of the Dory Rescue Squad. The Town and Village realized, without the Dory Rescue Squad, the need and value of rescue swimmers utilizing a vessel that had the ability to handle water emergencies in all types of conditions.
In California and Hawaii, PWCs had proven to be of great value with respect to water rescues. The East Hampton Town Lifeguards had also adopted PWCs to assist in rescues during lifeguarded hours. As the population of beachgoers grew in the summers, more people migrated away from the populated protected beaches to less crowded, unprotected beaches. The need for a quick response to these more remote areas was realized. With PWCs, responders can easily launch from the beach, transport rescue swimmers, punch through shore breaks, handle large surf conditions, maneuver in and out of the impact zone to pick up swimmers in distress, and return to the beach where emergency personnel are stationed to assist.
Over the last 10 years, East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue has been providing water protection for numerous triathlons and open-water swim and paddle events. As these events increased in number, the use of a PWC proved to be the optimal vessel to handle rescuing distressed swimmers.
Even though the use of PWCs proved to be a much more effective method of rescues, there was a resistance to change standards at the state level. The New York State Health Department for Operating Public Bathing Areas mandated either a ten-foot rescue board or a rescue dory boat. In 2011, after numerous letters to county and state health departments and meetings with Assemblyman Fred Thiele, the State changed their standards to accept the use of PWCs as a rescue vessel on protected bathing beaches.
In 2020, with the support of Assemblyman Fred Theile and State Senator Kenneth LaValle, the State of New York recognized East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue's efforts by designating it an emergency rescue and first aid squad. The Town of East Hampton followed with its own recognition later that year.
The Town and Village of East Hampton are fortunate to have these dedicated rescue swimmers, who are always on call, with their rescue equipment and personal watercraft to protect mariners and distressed swimmers in the waters surrounding East Hampton.