Two sets of distressed swimmers rescued off Hunting Island State Park this summer have at least one thing in common: They were pulled from the waves by courageous strangers.
Hunting Island hasn't had lifeguards on duty since 1998 because park officials couldn't fill the positions.
Instead, beach patrols performed by park rangers and Beaufort County sheriff's deputies have been increased.
"Right now we have more people and more eyes patrolling the beach -- and more of the beach -- than we've ever had in our history," park manager Jeff Atkins said.
On any given Saturday, he said, there are two to four park rangers and one or two deputies on patrol. Those numbers increase during holidays and other peak periods.
"Does it really take the place of a lifeguard?" asked Phil Gaines, director of the S.C. State Park Service. "No. But we certainly recognize the need to have a presence on the beach, and we try to do that as much as possible."
In the late 1990s, lifeguards monitored part of the Hunting Island beach near the lighthouse, while other areas were "swim at your own risk."
For five years beginning in 1999, officials sought lifeguards but didn't get any applications, Atkins said. The park offered "substantially" more than minimum wage, Gaines said, and eventually, the budget line was eliminated.
Before that, park officials tried contracting with a private company for lifeguard services, Atkins said. But the company quit before its contract ended because it didn't make enough supplemental revenue from renting chairs, umbrellas and other equipment.
Finding lifeguards for parks is a statewide problem, Gaines said. State parks at Huntington Beach and Myrtle Beach have lifeguards, but the park at Edisto Beach does not. In addition, the state park service no longer operates some of its inland natural swimming areas because they lack lifeguards.
However, safety protocols are reviewed every year and after each drowning or near-drowning. More than once, Gaines said, park officials have contemplated reinstituting Hunting Island's lifeguard program.
"It's always a possibility," he said. "On several occasions it's come up in serious discussion."
Chris Brewster, president of the U.S. Lifesaving Association, said applicant shortages are usually because of uncompetitive compensation.
"The reality is, in the lifeguard world, just like in any other profession, if you're unable to hire people to fill vacant positions, then you need to look to your pay and benefits," he said.
Shore Beach Service, which provides lifeguards on Hilton Head Island, has not had recruitment problems recently, said Ralph Wagner, the company's director of beach patrol. Wagner said the company employs about 75 seasonal lifeguards, who are a mix of full-time island residents and college students visiting for the summer.
But Hilton Head is a population center, while Hunting Island is at least a 15-minute drive from Beaufort.
"Part of the mystique of Hunting Island has always been its remote location," Gaines said.
Hunting Island attracted about a million visitors last year and made a profit of $1.1 million -- money that helps support other, less lucrative parks. Presumably, officials could attract lifeguards by offering yet higher wages.
But how high? And at what cost?
"People who are interested in lifeguarding would have to answer that question for you," Atkins said.
Gaines said past experience shows pay isn't the biggest obstacle to Hunting Island lifeguards.
"We bumped salaries up, we offered incentives, we did ads in newspapers, all that stuff," he said. "Probably a bigger question than compensation is where does that workforce come from?"
Follow reporter Kyle Peterson at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.