Jeff Patten, head of York's ocean rescue squad, puts the unit's new jet ski through its paces on the open ocean. Credit: Submitted photo courtesy of The York Weekly

YORK BEACH, Maine — During the Nubble Light Challenge several weeks ago, two swimmers had made it as far as the gut between Sohier Park and Nubble Light when their strength gave out. Coming to their rescue that morning was Jeff Patten, head of the town’s ocean rescue squad, on the town’s newly acquired jet ski.

“They were right in the middle of the gut and it was getting rough,” said Patten, who acts as the Nubble Light Challenge safety director. “No boat was able to make it in. I got her on the back of the jet ski and transferred her to the comfort boat, and her partner to the Coast Guard boat. And all was well.”

That jet ski is going to make a significant difference in water rescue operations for the town for years to come, said Patten, because of its quick response time and maneuverability. That’s important, because in the changing summer landscape in York, swimmers are not the only people using the beaches these days.

“Every year there are more people with paddleboards. So you get a weekend athlete who wants to try it, and he finally gets up and says, ‘This is easier than I thought.’ So he paddles to the Nubble, but coming back there’s a 4-knot wind and all of a sudden he’s down on the board and trying to paddle in. And that can be tiring,” said Patten.

So it is now the responsibility of the ocean rescue squad — lifeguards, as most know them — to keep an eye out not only close to shore but farther out as well. The jet ski is going to change response time significantly.

“Now,” said Patten, the lifeguard “has to leave the beach. And on a busy summer weekend, there’s one guy for every 1,000 people on the beach. So 1,000 people don’t have a sentinel. Then you have to get out there. Depending on the seas, you can be tired by the time you get out there, and you have to pull the victim in.”

The jet ski can reach the victim in just seconds, and if it’s needed at Short Sands or Harbor beaches, it can travel there in three to four minutes.

Patten said since the Challenge began again several years ago, he has been riding in a boat owned by Cape Neddick summer resident Douglas Chamberlain, who volunteers his boat for the swim. Before long, talk turned to how a jet ski would be a rescue aid.

Credit: Rich Beauchesne | Seacoast Online

“He’s a seasoned mariner,” Patten said. “He loves the water and he knows the water. He knows what it can do and how dangerous it can be. He also sees where he can help communities and he helps out.”

Chamberlain donated the money for the jet ski earlier this year.

“I grew up [spending] summers here. York Beach is part of my DNA, and I say that proudly,” he said. “After I got to know Jeff, he would talk about the obvious need to improve safety on the beaches. I thought, ‘Oh my god, I know the dedication of Jeff and his troops.’ If they could have a water rescue craft that could get out quickly in case of emergencies, I wanted to provide the town with that resource. This is another dimension that is absolutely needed for safety.”

Chamberlain said it came home to him particularly when a husband and wife swimming in Seabrook, New Hampshire, in August were swept out to sea by a rip current and died as a result. “It’s always something in the back of your mind,” he said. “Thank God we haven’t had anything like that happen in York. But this jet ski is another asset that could save a life.”

In addition to donating funds for the jet ski, Chamberlain also bought an ATV that can be used to bring the jet ski — typically housed inside the bathhouse — to the ocean’s edge in seconds, which could be critical.

Patten said this summer, he’s the only one who has used the jet ski. But he’s planning to train up to four guards next summer — and it’s guaranteed not to be easy. Already lifeguards volunteer their time for a daily workout before the start of each day, from 7:30 to 9 a.m. Those interested in operating the jet ski will be required to be 18 years old, have already put in 500 hours as a lifeguard in York, take an 18-hour boating course, followed by 30 hours of training on the jet ski.

This last piece is critical, so that the operators know where the rocks are around Sun ’n Surf, for instance, or the sand bars at Short Sands Beach.

“Now we have an entirely different component, not just to the beach but to the coast,” Patten said.

That fact is not lost on York Village Fire Lt. James Eslinger, head of the department’s water rescue team. The team has a boat docked in York Harbor that is used for rescue operations. He said the cooperation between the department and Patten’s ocean rescue squad “has grown by leaps and bounds” in recent years and the jet ski is only going to enhance that relationship.

“The mission is the same: keep people safe, rescue people who need to be saved,” said Eslinger. With the jet ski, “their response time is going to be a lot quicker than ours. If they can make initial contact while we’re underway, the chances of survival are a lot greater. Once we get there, we can bring them on the boat and provide medical care. But those first few minutes may be critical.”

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