• A Rinconvenient Truth

Responding to Tragedy, Surfers Unite for a Safer Rincón

Updated: Apr 26

Since the 1960s, surfers from the United States have been coming to Rincón to catch the best waves of the winter season. The trend has been so consistent that the town has slowly built its economy along its approximate eight miles of beautiful coastline, now famous with tourists. Yet, as the surfing community continues to swell, the beaches get crowded, and the same waves that keep the local economy afloat also put tourists and locals at risk of losing their lives.

But in response to the most recent drowning in Rincón, surfers have taken it upon themselves to improve beach safety by buying crucial equipment, training their neighbors on emergency response, and pushing for a lifeguarding program in Puerto Rico’s surfing capital.

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Many surfers in town believe that beach safety is of the utmost important for Rincón's tourism industry. (Darren Muschett)

“Rincon is not the little town it used to be 30 years ago. The tourism industry in Rincón is now at its peak thanks to surfing, but everybody is a surfer now, and our waters are not safe anymore,” exclaimed Kathleen Engstrom, a soul surfer who came to surf back in the 1980s and never left.

On February 12, Kathleen was readying her board to go in the water at María’s beach, one of her favorite spots right off State Road 4413, when she decided to take a step back. The sun was coming down, and “there were some really good closeout sets coming through, some really powerful waves, but there were too many boards in the water,” she recalled.

A closeout wave, Engstrom explained, breaks all at once, abruptly from end to end, and doesn't allow surfers to ride it. To the untrained eye, these waves look like they are about to form the perfect tube, but then quickly collapse, engulfing everything and everyone beneath them. That day at María’s, there was a wave in particular, Kathleen said, “that was a complete closeout and four people took off on it!"

“I believe Pancho was one of them. The wave completely closed out, and they all ate it! Their boards went flying in all directions, crisscross, and that’s when I decided that I wasn’t going in the water,” she continued. Some minutes thereafter, “all of a sudden, I heard everybody screaming, ‘Call 9-1-1! Call 9-1-1!’”

That was the voice of Melvin Soto Hernández who, along two American tourists, had found Jaime Purcell Castro, a 53-year-old surfer known to many in Rincón as Pancho, at the bottom of the ocean.

“I made it over to them as quickly as I could and pulled him unto my longboard with their help. I think he had been unconscious for a while now, because his eyes were shut and he was foaming at the mouth,” Soto Hernández relaid.

The three men pushed as hard as they could to get Purcell Castro back to shore. There, Melvin hoped, someone else could administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to keep Pancho’s heart pumping until the paramedics arrived at the scene.

“Who knows CPR? Who Knows CPR?” the men shouted, out of breath, at the crowd that quickly gathered around them. Arden Goll, a CPR-certified yoga instructor from Brooklyn, New York, was in the crowd and answered the call.

“I ran over as they were bringing him in, and I started giving him CPR. I quickly realized that Pancho had a lot of water in his lungs, so I turned him on his side a few times. As I was doing compressions, I realized that I was not strong enough to keep going long enough,” Goll told about her first real-life CPR experience.

Despite her diminishing energy, Arden taught another two surfers how to do compressions. “Once I felt they could do it, we started taking turns, doing about two minutes each until the ambulance arrived.”

Meanwhile, a crowd of almost 30 onlookers, including Engstrom, could tell his body was turning blue, which might have been a sign of hypoxia, a lack of proper tissue oxygenation, since Purcell Castro had not taken a breath for more than ten minutes, according to several eyewitness accounts.

Brian Morse, another young but experienced surfer, thought Goll had a better chance to jumpstart Purcell Castro’s heart with an Automated External Defibrillator (AED). “I went to Calypso and another place down the road, but none of them had an AED at hand. They’re not required to do so,” Morse said. He came back to María’s beach empty-handed.

“The ambulance was there in 20 minutes, which was shockingly fast, but the EMT guys just put the gurney down, instead of jumping on Pancho’s body and trying to resuscitate him!” Engstrom said. Morse and Goll confirmed that only one of the paramedics got out of the ambulance and was not carrying the much-needed AED.

Once the paramedics got Purcell Castro into the ambulance and closed the doors behind them, witnesses reported seeing the vehicle rock side to side, which Engstrom and Morse registered as a sign that the paramedics were trying to resuscitate the surfer. After several minutes, though, the ambulance rode away.

The next morning, Miguel Chaparro, an agent with the State Police in Aguadilla, informed that Purcell Castro had been pronounced dead. His official cause of death: asphyxia by submersion.

“Pancho was under for a long time, but I think we might had saved his life during those first crucial minutes if we had had an AED close by,” Morse reflected on the two-month anniversary of the tragic event.

Greg Carson, from Taíno Divers, holds an Automatic External Defibrillator. (Gabriel Pacheco Santa)

Pancho’s drowning made local surfers rethink the safety of their beaches.

Brian was not alone on this one. According to Greg Carson from Taino Divers, who has served as the water safety expert for the Corona Surf Contest held every year at Domes Beach in Rincón, Pancho’s tragic death moved many more of his neighbors to push for better safety along the westernmost coast of the island.

In the last three decades, Carson has saved several tourists and amateur surfers that came very close to drowning in Rincón but has also pulled out others who might have had a better chance of surviving if an AED had been at hand.

[Click on the hot zones to learn how Automatic External Defibrillators work]

“I used to live at Sandy Beach, and had to take my surf board to save people that were caught up in riptides and being sucked out to the sea, screaming for help and thinking they were going to die. I’ve pulled people out of Tres Palmas that were almost drowning, literally spitting out water. I’ve being out there paddleboarding and have heard people yelling and hollering because they’ve lost their board, paddled over to them, got them calm and to the beach, but they were that close to drowning,” the diving instructor explained.

Once, he dove and found a 15-year-old kid at the bottom of the ocean, but even after rowing him back to shore on his paddleboard and administering CPR, he was unable to resuscitate the boy. “He was under water for too long,” Carson recalled while clinching his fists.

Amateur surfers sometimes go a little over their head and get into a bad situation, the CPR instructor continued. “Their leash snaps while swimming in the inside, run out of breath, and get tired. Next thing they know, another wave takes them under, and they start swallowing water, which makes their breaths shorter. Meanwhile, they’re getting pounded by more waves and can’t hold their breath any longer. It quickly becomes a very dire situation.”

A memorial at María’s beach honors the lives of Hurricane Sandy hero Dylan Smith and longtime surfer Brian Ward. (Gabriel Pacheco Santa)

But amateurs are not the only victims. Experienced surfers, like Purcell Castro, have also perished due to perilous weather conditions or health complications in Rincón’s beaches. In 2012, 23-year-old lifeguard and surfer Dylan Smith, who saved six people in his native Belle Harbor, New York, during Hurricane Sandy, went out to surf at María's beach two days before Christmas, but his body was later found floating next to his board.

Brian Ward, a 58-year-old veteran surfer and firefighter from Long Beach, NY, suffered an accident at the same beach in march 2017, when three fellow surfers found him trying to hold his head above water with his surfboard. Although they pulled Ward back to shore alive, Gwen Black, who was his girlfriend at the time, told A Rinconvenient Truth that Brian reached the Buen Samaritano Hospital in Aguadilla without vital signs.

A few months prior to Ward, Michael Wallace Wright, a 39-year-old surfer from Florida, was separated from his board and dragged out by rip currents close to Domes Beach, before drowning.

“If you just give CPR to someone, the chances of kickstarting their heart are super low. With an AED, you are looking at a much higher chance to bring them back.,” Carson explained. In fact, according to a recent study into the impact of bystander’s use of automated external defibrillator, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest victim is about 24 percent more likely to survive when bystanders apply an electric shock via an AED before the emergency medical services arrive at the scene.

That’s why, just a day after the Purcell Castro's tragic death at María’s Beach, Brian Morse and Stephanie Ryneveld, who was then a scuba instructor in Rincón, started two GoFundMe campaigns, which are still receiving donations, to buy defibrillators and place them at strategic locations around town. You can find their crowdfunding campaigns here and here.

[Click on the left and right arrows to explore the locations of the AEDs]

In just two months, they have installed AEDs at Taíno Divers close to the Black Eagle Marina, Tamboo Beside the Pointe at Sandy Beach, Ola Sunset Café at the Punta Higuero Lighthouse, Villa Playa María at María’s Beach, and Hotel Villa Cofresí.

Additionally, more than 13 Rincoeños have received formal CPR training from the American Heart Association and more can reach out to the organization if they want to get trained. This, Carson added, is part of the community effort to get as many Rincoeños certified in the life-saving skills that all coastal citizens should have.

Puerto Rican lifeguards train on open water rescue techniques with experts from the United States Lifesaving Association back in 2012. (Sea Grant)

Lifeguards are the best investment in beach safety, experts say.

AEDs and CPR training are the community’s first step to increase safety in Rincón’s beaches, its biggest tourism attraction, but, as Carson confessed, tourists are dying because nobody is telling them when the ocean is too dangerous for them.

“We need a lifeguarding program in Rincón because the number one tourist income in this town is surfing. When there’s surf, there’s money. If you have people drowning, and others saying, ‘Oh my god, there were crazy waves and no lifeguards on the beach,’ tourists might hear this and decide that they don’t want to come visit. Tourism might be our number one business, but I don’t see a lot happening when it comes to protecting it,” the diving instructor complained.

Ruperto Chaparro Serrano, who leads the Sea Grant College Program at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez and has been studying the complex relationship between the archipelago’s tourism economy and the safety of its beaches for the last thirty years, echoed Carson’s words and added that his organization, along the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), already developed a blueprint for the implementation of lifeguarding in Puerto Rico back in 2008.

Ruperto Chaparro Serrano, a Rincón native, has been a longtime advocate for beach safety in Puerto Rico. (Gabriel Pacheco Santa)

After documenting the needs at 25 of the most popular beaches around the island, the two organizations published the Aquatic Safety Assessment and Recommendations for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which they shared with officials at the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, the Puerto Rico National Parks Company, as well as Rincón’s municipal government, amongst others relevant agencies.

This document, Chaparro Serrano explained, was supposed to be a one-stop-shop for municipal and state government officials who needed to address beach safety, but, as the researcher added, “it quickly became a reminder that they needed to invest in beach safety in order to sustain the tourism industry, so they ignored it.”

Amongst the working group’s recommendations, the USLA highlighted that no other strategy is more effective at preventing drownings than having lifeguards on duty, an opinion that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shares.

“If a community develops water recreational facilities to attract patrons who spend money in the local area, then it can be argued that the community has an obligation to protect these patrons. When weighing the costs and legal implications of interventions to prevent drowning, decision makers should never lose sight of the enormous importance of protecting people from harm and preventing tragedy at beaches and pools, places where people go for pleasure, for health, and for solace,” reads a 2001 report by the CDC.

However, a study by Chaparro Serrano and Efrank Mendoza Martínez, who were the first to compile data about drownings in Puerto Rico from the Institute of Forensics Science (ICF, in Spanish), found that almost 30 people, mostly local young men, drowned each year from 1990-1997.

A more recent report by Sea Grant researchers Berliz Morales Muñoz and Cristina Hernández González showed that this trend continued through 2010, and their more recent data suggests that, although the island’s tourism industry has flourished, beach safety has not improved, at least, until 2014 – the last year for which data has been compiled.

[Scroll and click on this infographic to learn more about Sea Grant's findings]

In comparison, the expert, who has visited dozens of beaches around the United States in search of safety strategies to implement back home, argued that the number of drownings at cities like Daytona Beach, Florida and San Diego, California, which host almost double the amount of tourists as the Puerto Rican archipelago on a yearly basis, never goes above the single digits thanks to their lifeguarding programs.

At Daytona Beach, particularly, he explained, professional lifeguards, who are paid anywhere from $40,000-$60,000, rescue 400 victims and warn almost 5,000 beachgoers off imminent danger every year.

Although Sea Grant’s Director recognizes that these salaries might be too big a burden for Puerto Rican authorities, he suggested that the cost of safety and other coastal services could be tempered to Puerto Rico’s economic reality by redirecting more tourism funds towards the management of coastal resources, or by implementing a tourism occupancy tax like Florida has done, one way or another, since 1967.

“A small tax on hotel guests, targeted to beach safety could be used to fund lifeguard protection programs. As an alternative it should be noted that, thirty years ago, the State of Florida authorized a Tourism Development Tax, which has provided a funding source that is currently being utilized to provide certain lifeguard services,” reads the USLA’s aquatic safety assessment.

But for Chaparro Serrano, the situation in Rincón, his hometown, is a no brainer. “To exploit the economic potential of our natural beauty and local culture, which revolves around the beach, we need to invest in the management of our coastal resources and the safety of those who visit our beaches. Every day we don’t do this is a day we put our tourism economy at risk,” he declared.

*This story was edited to clarify details about Brian Ward's tragic accident at María's Beach.

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