13 swimmers swept away in current rescued off Norton Point beach

This photo from Google Earth shows the Norton Point breach as it appeared earlier in the year. — Photo courtesy of Google Earth

Updated 11 am Friday, July 26, 2013

In one frightening hour Wednesday afternoon, South Beach lifeguards, and members of the Edgartown fire and shellfish departments rescued three groups of swimmers, 13 in all, from strong currents off Norton Point Beach. There were no injuries.

Four on duty lifeguards were the first on the scene. Lifeguards Billy Reagan, Sam Stedmach, and Ryan Leandro responded from their posts on all terrain vehicles (ATV’s) and swam through the breach to reach the swimmers. Head guard Kurstin Meehan also responded on a paddleboard. The guards remained with the stranded swimmers until the two town boats arrived.

“It was just coincidence that these three different groups needed to be rescued at the same time,” Edgartown Police Chief Tony Bettencourt told The Times in a telephone call late Wednesday.

The Island communications center received the first call at 3:23 pm, Chief Bettencourt said. Two men were in trouble in the water, swept up in the current that flows through the breach in the barrier beach that separates Katama Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.

Two other men who set out to help the first pair then found themselves in distress. Coincidentally, another group of nine swimmers also got in trouble in the strong current. “We ended up taking a total of 13 people out of the water,” Mr. Bettencourt said. “Eight went on the fire boat, and the rest went on to the shellfish boat.”

Although the day was clear and the water appeared calm, the water emptying out of Katama Bay was “ripping” through the breach, he said.

Although signs warn of strong currents, it appears that the swimmers were riding the flow from the bay to a beach and misjudged the strength of the outflow and were swept past their target and out into the white water, Mr. Bettencourt said.

A Coast Guard helicopter from Air Station Cape Cod arrived but was not needed.

“We practice this. We have a plan in place for breach rescues,” Chief Bettencourt said. “And everything went smoothly. I mean we were able to get 13 people out of the water. I don’t think it gets any better than that.”

This article was updated to reflect the role of lifeguards in the rescue.