Friends of Matt McParland, the 42-year-old U.S. chiropractor who drowned recently while on vacation in Tamarindo, are doing more than mourning his death.
Frustrated by the thought that McParland might still be alive if the beach’s privately funded lifeguard program had not been dropped four months before, some of them are taking action.
Water safety is a concern that has rippled across the country. The Red Cross reported that drowning was the third-most common cause of death its volunteers responded to last year, claiming at least 12 lives. However, because the Red Cross is not present at every beach, pool, river and lake, the number could be much higher.
In 2006, for example, there were 161 drownings, according to the statistical office of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ).
The office did not yet have complete statistics for 2007.
Sisters-in-law Ann and Cheryl McKillican are going door to door to hotels in Tamarindo, in the northwest province of Guanacaste, to pool money for the Matt McParland Fund, which they hope will reach a monthly $6,000 to pay lifeguards to start next month on the popular coast.
Cheryl McKillican said the fund is open to international donors as well, and could involve bringing U.S. lifeguards here to provide training.
Adequate training and equipment are real concerns for Tamarindo residents, who believe that McParland’s life might have been saved if the emergency team’s automated external defibrillator, an electrical jumpstarter for the heart, had contained fully charged batteries. But Tamarindo residents are also coming to terms with the fact that greater preventive measures are needed.
“Matt might have died, but other people don’t have to,” said McKillican.
“We’ve gotten some tentative commitments from people who say they’ll give money,” she said. So far, hotel Tamarindo Diria, in front of which the chiropractor was swept away by a riptide Jan. 11, has pledged to help with money and by fixing up its lifeguard tower, she said.
“The Diria definitely would like to participate,” said Jacqueline Stensrud, a manager.
“We are still waiting for the exact cost (from the fund’s organizers), but our point of view has always been pretty clear on that subject, that we are willing to participate.” McKillican added that real estate company Century 21 has announced it would host a surf contest in Tamarindo in May, part of the proceeds of which would go to resuscitating the town’s defunct lifeguard program.
The Tamarindo project could take pointers from a community on the opposite coast, south of the Caribbean port Limón, which has figured out a strategy for saving lives at sea.
Playa Cocles is the most popular beach on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast, say residents. “However, the riptide currents are very dangerous,” said Eddie Ryan, owner of La Costa de Papito, a hotel at Playa Cocles.
“The current program started in August 2003. There was an initial program that fell on its face that started in April 2003,” said Ryan, citing differences with the National Lifeguard Association.
The community decided it was time to take action when, in April 2003, five people drowned in eight days – a combination of tourists and residents, according to Ryan.
But after repeated failures at seeking help from the Red Cross, the Tourism Ministry and the OIJ, Ryan decided it was the businesses that had to take matters into its own hands.
“I had to go around convincing people that if you want a better community then you have to pay for it,” he said.
About 60 businesses such as hotels and restaurants chip in varying amounts to help pay the monthly salaries of two full-time lifeguards, for which Ryan said wages cost ¢600,000, or about $1,200, a month.