PLUM ISLAND — At the northern point of this barrier island yesterday, four lifeguards waited on the beach as head lifeguard Scarlett Mellow and Harbormaster Ralph Steele floated in a boat in the mouth of the Merrimack River.
Then Mellow threw Oscar, a U.S. Coast Guard dummy, overboard, prompting lifeguard Drew Brewer to run and jump into the river — the water at a mere 54 degrees.
Once Brewer rescued Oscar and towed him to the harbormaster boat, the University of Tennessee swim team member still had enough energy to make a joke.
"You guys lose something?" he said, dropping off Oscar, before making the swim, against the current, back to the beach.
"Nice swimming," Mellow said.
Brewer was one of four Newburyport lifeguards yesterday to brave the notoriously strong and dangerous — not to mention cold — currents at the mouth of the Merrimack River. The exercise is part of the lifeguards' fast water rescue skills training, essential knowledge for that part of the river, Steele said.
During tidal changes, the current at the mouth can rush at several knots, posing risks for even the best of swimmers.
Local dive teams, in fact, describe the currents in the river as disorienting during certain tidal situations. Conditions at the mouth become even more dangerous during storms or a strong northeast wind, which can cause whitecaps.
Mellow and Steele say the training in that part of the river is not practice for rescuing swimmers, especially since swimming at that part of the river is prohibited.
"It's not for the swimmers," Steele said. "It's for the fishermen."
Mellow, a local lifeguard for the past 10 years, said if a fisherman gets too far out into the water, "the sand acts like a treadmill, and they slip and take off" with the current.
"They try to test their luck and try to walk out as far as they can," she said of the fishermen.
Training yesterday went off without a hitch.
Each of the four lifeguards — Brewer, Rich Lepke, Matt Sheridan and Stephanie Smith — recovered the dummy and dragged it back to the boat. For all of the lifeguards, it was the first time they had attempted rescue training at the mouth of the river.
"They're all newbies," Mellow said.
In successive exercises, Mellow dumped the dummy off the side of the boat into the river, after which the lifeguards would jump into the water to make the rescue. During that time, the current pushed the dummy, the lifeguard and the harbormaster boat toward the ocean.
When Lepke jumped into the river to rescue the dummy, for instance, the current was pushing the dummy quite quickly. From the beach, the other three lifeguards screamed advice: "Get ahead of it, Rich. Get ahead of it."
Steele, though, was unimpressed with the current's speed. He said in previous years, the water has really moved fast, causing difficult conditions for rescue attempts.
"I wanted the water rushing," he said. "But at least it's cold."
But it certainly wasn't easy — especially not the swim back to the beach, which was more against the tide.
"The swim back is killing them," Mellow said.
When Sheridan finally reached the beach, in fact, he collapsed to his knees in exhaustion.
"The swim out there was easy, wasn't it?" Brewer said to Sheridan.