To the Rescue

by Apr 18, 2024Community, Southport Oak Island

Oak Island Water Rescue has been keeping residents and visitors safe in the water for more than 25 years.

Whether enjoying the beach, taking a swim, kayaking or boating, sometimes things don’t go as planned on the water. And when people find themselves in distress, Oak Island Water Rescue responds.

Oak Island Water Rescue (OIWR) was established in 1997, but water rescue efforts have been conducted on Oak Island since the 1970s. The team is currently made up of 24 active water rescue volunteers who work together to assist both humans and animals in a water emergency. Several auxiliary members support the team through bookkeeping, grant writing, fundraising, marketing and vehicle maintenance.

Some water rescue members have a background in medical and emergency services, including Chief Carl Mauney.

“I was a firefighter and paramedic for 32 years in Maryland,” Mauney says. “I was also part of their water rescue team. We did river rescues on the Potomac River and had a scuba team. We worked to recover evidence and rescue drowning victims.”

Oak Island Water Rescue

Chief Mauney has been with the OIWR since 2016, joining the team shortly after retiring and moving to Oak Island. Prior to being elected as chief in December of 2023 during the annual election process, Mauney was a lieutenant and had also been the team’s training coordinator.

“Those positions allowed me to learn more about the team,” he says. “It’s hard work, but I work with a great team of people. They carry the load.”

Many volunteers with OIWR do not have a background in water safety, so training becomes crucial.

“We have a mix of staff, some police and some firefighters, but most from other walks of life,” Mauney says. “Training prepares them on how to operate a boat and maneuver our waterways.”

An essential part of training is learning how to operate the four different watercraft used to perform shallow water rescues. Each boat serves a purpose. Some can be easily launched from the beach and can go out on the ocean, and others are made to assist with rescues that occur in shallow, marshy areas.

Oak Island NC Water Rescue

Additional technology, including drones and night optic devices, assist with rescues. The drones can locate and communicate with a person before the rescue boats arrive, which quickly provides team members with valuable information and allows for better assessment. A drone can also drop a flotation device, which can be expanded and used by someone in distress.

While OIWR recently made a rescue with the Hovercraft, a drone was able to locate the victims in advance.

“It got there first and identified that three people were stuck in the mud,” Mauney explains. “A father was kayaking with his two young sons. He and one of the boys got out of their kayak and began sinking. The father was stuck in mud up to his chest. Then the tide started coming in. Someone on shore heard the man yelling and they called 911. It was scary, but we saved three lives that day.”

OIWR responds to approximately 75 to 80 rescue calls each year.

Emergency calls often include a swimmer in distress, a medical emergency on the beach or a boat run aground. The type of call determines the vehicle and equipment that is needed to respond effectively.

OIWR is unique because it is the only stand-alone water rescue facility in North Carolina, but they partner with local emergency services. When 911 calls are taken by the sheriff’s department, the information is sent to the Oak Island Fire Department, Brunswick County EMS, OIWR and the Oak Island Police Department. Based on the location and type of call, the Coast Guard may also respond.

Additional technology used by OIWR can be valuable during night rescues. In the dark, missing people can be more easily found with night optics and infrared technology that senses body temperature. Handheld night vision devices help team members navigate the water using ambient light from the stars and the moon.

Drone Oak Island Water Rescue

OIWR gets its funding from a variety of sources, including support from the county and the town. These funds are used at their facility for operational expenses like electricity and gas. Grants and donations from residents are key to purchasing equipment.

“We are the only ones in Brunswick County to have a hovercraft,” Mauney says. “If a generous donor hadn’t bought it, we wouldn’t have it.”

Fundraising has also been a successful stream of revenue. OIWR hosts a golf tournament each November at Oak Island Golf Club. In the summer they sell t-shirts to raise money.

Educating the public about water safety can be difficult.

“The population at the beach changes each week,” Mauney says. “Keeping them educated on the dangers and how to be safe becomes challenging. Knowing what the rip current risk is or if there’s a small craft water advisory is important, and communicating these things is tough.”

OIWR is doing much to get the word out about beach conditions and water safety. In the summer, they post daily reports on local weather conditions and the status of rip currents to their social media pages. They also use a flag system in conjunction with the town to warn swimmers of the risk of rip currents.

“Eighty percent of the drownings in Brunswick County occur on yellow flag days. It is so important to know the risks,” Mauney says.

To get current water safety information, beachgoers can use their smartphone to scan QR codes on signs at all beach public access points.

Oak Island Water Rescue North Carolina

“The codes were scanned 45,000 times last year, so we know visitors are using them,” Mauney says.

Additionally, the Jack Helbig Memorial Foundation has partnered with the Town of Oak Island to place rescue tubes at the beach’s 65 public accesses. They can be used by a bystander attempting a rescue if they are unwilling or feel unable to wait for emergency personnel to arrive. Mauney says, “These devices have already saved lives, and we are hoping more beaches in Brunswick County will do the same.”

For OIWR, preventing emergencies is an important part of their mission.

“We try to make it as easy as we can for people to get the information they need to be safe,” Mauney says. “And it’s rewarding to know that we have mitigated someone’s emergency.”

Want to volunteer, donate or learn more?
Oak Island Water Rescue Station 44
4901 E. Pelican Drive, Oak Island
(910) 278-4482

Photography by Carl Mauney