OCEAN CITY — Ocean City--"How do you write 'help me' in Japan? I mean, Japanese?" asks Colby Nelson, a Beach Patrol member standing on the beach.
Ms. Nelson is one of about a dozen volunteers waiting for a group of students from the Yokohama Academy to arrive in Ocean City. It's a hot, sunny Saturday morning and the Beach Patrol has promised to give the visitors a quick course in rescue techniques.
Across Coastal Highway at 41st Street, the visitors arrive. Four busloads of them -- the group is about twice the size the Beach Patrol was expecting.
Ward Kovacs, the Beach Patrol lieutenant who is in charge of the program, makes some quick adjustments to his carefully laid plans.
First problem to solve: getting 170 students, many of whom speak little English, safely across Coastal Highway to the beach. A quick discussion with other lieutenants and Beach Patrol Capt. George Schoepf brings results: Captain Schoepf and Lieutenant Kovacs drive two Beach Patrol Blazers onto Coastal Highway, lights flashing, to block traffic while the students and their chaperons cross.
The purpose of the visit is to offer the high-school and college-age students some water tips, immerse them in some American culture (what's more American than a Saturday at the beach?) and show them Ocean City.
First across the language barrier is Captain Schoepf, who uses an authoritative whistle and sweeping hand gestures to hurry the stragglers across Coastal Highway. Captain Schoepf's years as a coach and teacher transcend any language. The students scamper onto the sidewalk obediently.
Once on the beach, the language difficulty is compounded by the noise level.
The interpreter is Manami Murayama, and her soft voice -- even amplified by a bullhorn -- barely carries over the crash of the waves and the animated conversations the students are having among themselves.
A couple of them follow Beach Patrol members into the surf for a quick demonstration of a rescue buoy's use. Lieutenant Kovacs and others show them how to loop the buoy's strap over the shoulder, then swim toward a "victim" (Ms. Nelson and fellow Beach Patrol member Dorie Nicholson are waiting to be rescued just beyond the surf line).
Kanto Saito, 16, tries the buoy rescue, swimming into a wave to get to the two Beach Patrol members, then rests in the wet sand near the waves.
"It's so difficult for me," he explains in halting English. "A big wave -- so I couldn't see well."
And there's one other thing he's learned.
Lieutenant Kovacs has made further adjustments to his plans because the water is so rough on this day. He'll skip the paddle board part of the program and move straight into what's called a "land line rescue."
This calls for six or seven Beach Patrol members to man a yellow rope. One end is attached to a buoy, which one person takes out to a "victim" who's beyond the surf line. The line goes to a large spool, and other Beach Patrol members feed out the line, hand over hand, toward the water.
Once the victim has grabbed the buoy, the line is reeled in, hand over hand again, by a half dozen Beach Patrol employees until the victim is safely ashore.
It's an impressive bit of rescue choreography, compelling enough to draw the attention of almost all the students, who cluster around the display.
Next, Lieutenant Kovacs has the interpreter explain, the students can try it. And they do, although some of the grace of the exercise is lost. It's harder than it looks.
The students pulling the line stumble in the sand under the victim's weight, and one girl shows another where the rope has left a little burn on her shoulder.
What did they learn?
"Teamwork!" explains Hong Ling Huang, 16, one of the American students who attends the academy's branch in Annapolis. "And you don't need languages -- just pull."
After the exercise is over, the interpreter and the chaperons begin rounding up the students so they can get on the bus and go down to the Boardwalk for the next part of their visit.
Lieutenant Kovacs watches the students shake the sand from their shoes and file through the beach access, past the American, Ocean City and Japanese flags the Beach Patrol put in the sand -- "Something to make them feel welcome!" Captain Schoepf explains.
The day hasn't gone the way he thought it would, but Lieutenant Kovacs seems pleased.
"I had kind of a plan, but with this many, it's just not workable," he says.
"That's all right," he adds. "Most everybody's smiling -- and that's what matters!"