- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2007

OCEAN CITY — Lifeguard Ben Davis squints into the distance, while way down the beach, another lifeguard waves orange signal flags.

“S-A-R-A,” Mr. Davis interprets.

It is the name of a missing child.

More signals follow.

“S-E-V — she’s 7,” Mr. Davis reads. “Her trunk color is … blue.”

And so, the word goes out for the Ocean City Beach Patrol: Be on the lookout for Sara7Blue. Later that day, IsabelAbout4Orange, Ian6Spiderman, Ashley-4Pink and Annie4PinkPolkaDot will join the list.

It’s a typical day at Maryland’s coastal resort, where as many as 100 children a day, 2,000 a season, may be reported missing along the 10-mile beach. Eventually, all of those missing children will be united with their families.

Finding the children is part art.

“After awhile, they just stick out like sore thumbs,” said Mr. Davis, crew chief of the 90-member patrol. “A lost kid just looks like a lost kid. You see him. You lock eyes with him. And you know.”

It’s also part science.

Along with flag signals, the guards use radio dispatches, passing along a child’s name, age and suit color in brisk, businesslike announcements.

The worst time for children getting lost, veteran guards know, is in late July and August, on scorching days when the beach is crowded, the sideways current is strong and high tide hits early.

Families spread their towels farther back on the sand, making Mommy and Daddy harder to see, while the powerful current nudges young swimmers up the coast.

Veterans also learn that fathers are more likely to lose track of their little ones than mothers.

“Fathers can tell you about every bikini on the beach, but they don’t know where their kid is,” said Capt. Butch Arbin, head of the beach patrol. “Some of them forget they even have kids.”

Mothers and fathers both underestimate the amount of ground a child can cover.

Even little ones have been known to stray for miles, finally turning up in the dunes of Delaware. They usually walk in the same direction — with the wind at their back.

Guards tell stories of misplaced infants who were too young to walk, and of a father who asked them to give him a call if his missing 12-year-old daughter ever turned up — but he really had to be getting back to Baltimore.

More often, though, parents are frantic, assuming that their children have drowned. They demand that the Coast Guard be called, that the depths of the ocean be scoured.

“For you, it happens once, but for us it happens 2,000 times a year,” Capt. Arbin often tells them, assuring parents that in his 36 summers on the beach, the patrol has never lost a child.

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