MANATEE -- In the wake of a drowning death on an unguarded beach Saturday, an Anna Maria city commissioner said Monday up to 12 manned lifeguard stands should immediately be erected on Anna Maria beaches.
"I think the fact that we have beaches, and advertise ourselves as having the No. 1 beaches in the world, and we don't have lifeguards makes no sense, and you saw what happened," said Anna Maria Commissioner Gene Aubry.
The body of a 14-year-old Winter Haven boy, Dushay Nelson, was found Sunday morning after he was overcome by strong currents Saturday afternoon on a beach off Willow Avenue in Anna Maria.
Although the Anna Maria beach is accessible to the public, it is not a designated public beach operated by the county and equipped with lifeguards and towers.
Besides performing rescues, lifeguards also post colored flags letting swimmers know how safe it is to go into the water, Aubry said.
"Lifeguards are constantly aware of the water," Aubry said.
The drowning occurred 2.5 miles from the nearest county-operated beach where certified lifeguards patrol 365 days a year.
Manatee County lifeguards now only stand watch at Coquina Beach at southern Anna Maria Island and at the Manatee County Public Beach further north at Holmes Beach. Those public beaches cover only a small stretch of the 7-mile island shoreline.
To rectify the situation, Aubry said the cities of Anna Maria Island, Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach along with Manatee County should meet immediately to work plan how to pay for certified lifeguards for all unguarded areas of the island where people swim.
Manatee County's Marine Rescue Division budget is about $652,000 a year, said Nicholas Azzara, a Manatee County spokesman.
The funding pays for 11 lifeguards at a starting base salary of $31.170 plus benefits, and their equipment.
Aubry said he plans to raise the issue at an Anna Maria Commission meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at Anna Maria City Hall.
Aubry believes erecting as many lifeguard stands as needed is the ethical way to go.
"We all have a moral obligation that deals with tourists," Aubry said. "Tourism is our biggest industry ... we need lifeguards and lifeguard stations -- as many as it takes."
Not every official is jumping right into a lifeguard tower.
Anna Maria Mayor SueLynn said Monday she didn't think Anna Maria has ever had lifeguards and needs elsewhere are greater now when the city is experiencing a 10-fold increase in weekend traffic from two years ago.
"People swim at their own risk," SueLynn said. "We don't have many drownings, but this is not the first. I talked to people, my own friends, and many said the rip tide was terrible on Saturday. If you have people unfamiliar they don't understand how strong that tide is."
Still, she said she will be open to a discussion on lifeguards.
"I am so sorry for this family's loss," SueLynn said. "The pain of losing a child is unimaginable."
Holmes Beach Mayor Carmel Monti said Monday he has not had a request for lifeguards on Holmes Beach's unguarded shoreline in the six months he has been mayor, but maybe the time has come to talk about it.
"I will bring it up before our city council," Monti said.
There has been talk, and even actual proposals, to expand lifeguard protection to places other than the county-operated public beaches, said Capt. Joe Westerman, who heads the Manatee County Marine Rescue Division. But the discussions always foundered on budget realities, he said.
"Lifeguards would make a difference but I'm also a realist," said Westerman. "In the midst of budget restraints, a lot of people don't like to look at staffing."
The county employs Westerman, along with 10 full-time lifeguards at two public beaches -- down from a staff of 17 a decade ago.
His advice for avoiding swimming accidents: Always go to guarded beaches.
"On the Fourth of July, we pulled out nearly 40 people," he recalled, also noting the Gulf harbored a strong rip current that day.
"If not, then know your limitations, your childrens' limitations and keep an eye on them at all times," Westerman said. "The Gulf can be very unforgiving. Always prepare for the worst-case scenario."
Nine county lifeguards on duty Saturday already had worked a full day when Nelson was reported missing but all went straight to the area where he was last seen to help search, Westerman said. They stayed until darkness halted the search.
In Sarasota County, about 18 lifeguards cover six beaches covering nearly 4 miles along the Gulf at a cost of roughly $2 million annually, said Capt. Scott Montgomery, Sarasota County lifeguard chief.
Even an accomplished athlete such as Olympic champion Michael Phelps would be unable to outswim a rip current, Manatee County Sheriff's Deputy Bill McBride said.
"How good a swimmer you are "doesn't matter," said McBride, who is with the sheriff's marine patrol unit. "Had he been at a beach with lifeguards, the accident probably wouldn't have happened."
The marine patrol uses five vessels to patrol freshwater and saltwater bodies of water, including reservoirs and rivers, he said.
One boat was out Saturday when the accident occurred, and two deputies helped search for Nelson's body, McBride said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.