In 1981, I was the assistant waterfront director (AWD) at a camp that had nearly a mile of lakefront on Lake Lure in western North Carolina.
When the waterfront director (WD) had to leave camp for a few days, I was called into the office and became the WD after a brief meeting with the assistant camp director that went something like this: “Mitch, you’re in charge, make sure nobody gets hurt.”
Fortunately, I felt fairly confident in my promotion as I was already handling the lifeguard rotation schedule and attending the waterfront meetings with the now-absent WD.
What I was not ready for was the real responsibility that came with the job and the supervision needed to have a safe waterfront.
Now that I am a camp owner and director, the first thing on my mind every summer is the responsibility and safety of campers and staff members.
Here are a few suggestions to make your waterfront safer; although some of them seem basic, don’t assume they are being attended to at your facility now.
Start At The Top
The first and most important aspect of waterfront safety starts with the WD and AWD. Their supervision and adherence to policy are critical.
As the owner, let them hear directly from you how important their job is. Make sure both have the necessary experience and training required for the position, and be sure both are included at all pre-camp and camp discussions pertaining to waterfront safety, lifeguard staffing, and waterfront program staffing.
Before camp starts, make sure both have surveyed the entire waterfront and understand the programming. Utilize their expertise to identify potential safety issues, and have both people develop and/or enhance the waterfront-safety policy and procedures.
Early in the session, put each in charge of the waterfront and observe that person at work. Confirm that the AWD can handle the job; you never know when he or she will be in charge.
Know The Waterfront
Most camps have a considerable amount of waterfront, whether a lake, ocean, river, pool, or pond. It is important to recognize any additional dangers these areas may present.
Does the waterfront have cliffs or boulders that would be fun for kids to jump from?
Did last year’s senior boys put up a rope swing somewhere out of eyesight from land (I know we did in 1976)?
Walk the waterfront from shore, then go out in a boat and view the shoreline from the water to make sure you aren’t in for any surprises. For example, winter storms can cause trees to fall over and submerge, which could be hazards to swimming and boating.
Prepare Beaches, Pools, And Docks
As a result of a major storm, we now install the swim docks during staff training. Even if you think you have enough mooring lines with enough weight, add more.
Utilize the staff resources to clean the shorefront and lake, river, or sea bottom at all swim entry points.
Be sure there are no open or broken pool grates where kids can get clothing or hands stuck.
Prepare a site-inspection checklist, and have both the WD and AWD sign off that the equipment and swim areas are safe.
Observe Lifeguard Certification
Although you will have written lifeguard certifications for staff members prior to camp, make sure to observe lifeguards during their pre-camp certification.
Don’t be afraid to jump in the water and have them save you. Throw in an unusual exercise during staff training to see how everyone responds to an atypical emergency. Have lifeguards save both a passive and active drowning victim.
Have lifeguards prove they can swim long distances with and without a victim. You never know when they will have to save someone in the middle of the lake without a boat.
Check And Update Safety Equipment
Of course there is always the goal of maximizing the lifespan of safety equipment; however, these items must work when needed.
Have the WD and AWD do a thorough review of all equipment, including safety lines, ring buoys, rescue tubes, radios, etc., and err on the side of safety when determining if their usable lifespan is over. There is absolutely no jury alive that will be lenient about outdated equipment.
Waterfront safety starts with the camper.
It is common to require every child to take a swim test, and the same should be true to ensure every camper knows the waterfront rules and regulations on arrival day.
Set limits and expectations by having counselors tell the campers how serious unsupervised swimming and diving can be, and have them review the free-swim rules before the first event.
The WD should review the free-swim rules for the entire camp at lunch announcements before free swim, and every year, as the director, make a personal announcement as to the seriousness of checking in and out of the water and the importance of the buddy system. Usually, when the director speaks, everyone listens.
Attend The First Free Swim
The best way to see your team in action is to go to free swim. That’s right, put on your suit and get in the water.
Test the procedures from check-in to check-out. See if the head lifeguard makes you swim with a buddy. Try to swim outside the boundaries and hang on the safety lines to see what happens.
Make sure lifeguards are actually focused and in rotation, and look for any potential safety issues that may have been overlooked.
Free swim is a fun but dangerous time when so many kids are in the water together.
I assume most camps are thorough in their waterfront safety procedures, and I hope that my suggestions are merely reinforcing your existing waterfront policy, but I also suspect that many directors haven’t been in the water in a long time.
Jump in, the water’s fine! Let’s all have a safe and happy waterfront, this and every summer.
Mitch Parker is one of the owner/directors of Camp Waziyatah in Waterford, Maine, along with his brother Gregg. Wazi resides on 130 acres and a 3.5-mile lake. Mitch went to summer camp in Western Carolina from ages 6 to 20 and was a water-ski instructor, water-safety instructor (WSI), lifeguard, lifeguard trainer, and assistant waterfront director.