The happy lifeguards of San Diego

They do everything but sell Coppertone

“It changes your personality. You’re not the same as the average bystander.”
  • “It changes your personality. You’re not the same as the average bystander.”
  • Image by John Maher

In the Spring of 1973, Paul J. decided to become a San Diego City Lifeguard.

He went to the City Administration Building at 202 “C” Street and filled out an application for Lifeguard I, summer work. While there, he learned that job requirements included a 300-meter rough-water swim in ten minutes or less.

Paul didn’t sweat the test. He grew up in the Midwest, where swimming was big. He began hanging around the local pool at age five; the lifeguards called him Skitter, after the skinny water spiders on farm ponds. Paul later became a top natatorium competitor and winner of several state prizes. He guarded at the local pool.

His competing years were well behind him, however, and he hadn’t done that much ocean swimming. So, to check his condition and get used to the water, Paul took his girlfriend and a stopwatch to Bonita Cove on Mission Bay for a test run.

Below an overcast sky, Paul waded into bay water. Its coldness startled him. He paddled around for a few minutes, huffing and blowing to get used to it. When his girlfriend said “Go,” he still had dry hair, but he buried his face in the water and began to sprint the length of the cove.

Fifty, sixty strokes in, he still wasn’t used to the water. His eyebrows felt numb, and his neck ached. The dark bay water bothered him — he felt as though he were swimming into a hole. Without the familiar pool-bottom guidelines he became disoriented, and when he checked his bearing, he discovered he’d made a full right-angle veer. He paddled back onto course, and plowed into his freestyle.

The cold water shocked him fresh. He gasped underwater. The wind blew over his breathing shoulder and small, cold waves smacked him in the face on each breath. His eyes began to sting from salt.

When he checked again, his course held good, but the marker buoy at the far end of the cove seemed no closer. He swam and checked again. Swam. Checked again. No closer.

Two minutes after starting down the course, Paul turned and paddled to shore. He shivered in the breeze despite his beach towel. He hadn’t figured on this. It didn’t look that bad, only 500 meters. But down in the water, it seemed so damn far. He wondered if it was this bad for everybody.

Carol Tyler student-teaches physical education at La Jolla High School in addition to lifeguarding part-time in San Diego’s “North Area,” La Jolla Shores and the Cove. She tried out for the San Diego Lifeguard Service in 1972, after she took her new B.A. on vacation to Europe. By the time she got back, she “really needed the job.”

“I’d heard they were opening up to women,” she says. “The swimming test wasn’t hard — I started competing when I was nine.” She also had experience as a pool guard.

But stories about Lifeguard School sounded pretty scary. She heard they made guard candidates jump off the Clam, thirty-five feet into a shallow surge — if you timed it right. Thirty five feet onto rock if not. Still, says Carol, “I’d have done anything they told me to do, I wanted that job so bad.”

Lifeguard School turned out to be “very informative.” Hard? “Yeah” — she pauses — “but actually not that bad.”

Carol has been guarding scuba divers, a whole new category of rescues for San Diego Lifeguards. She points across the cove to a rock outcrop. “A few days ago, I had a screamer, right over there. A diver — came up on the rocks and just freaked out.”

Carol is the only guard stationed at the Cove, but she doesn’t mind. “You kidding? I found my home.”

Her Lifeguard School classmates voted Carol Tyler “Honor Guard” of 1972.

Paul realized he would have to adjust his concepts about water work. Competition taught measurable speed under finite, clinical conditions. But competition taught nothing of waves or open bodies of deep, dark boogie-water. Twenty-five meters in the pool meant a wall to push off; one-hundred meters meant a race and a cheering crowd. Twenty-five meters in the ocean might really be twenty-four or twenty-six, with half a dozen sideways, and meant nothing; one-hundred meters might not even get you outside the surf line, no matter how fast you could swim it. The important thing was to function — period.

He began to develop a new relationship with water, big water, not the chlorinated stuff.

Mike O’Hare grew up in La Jolla, a typical beach rat. He worked as a California State Lifeguard for three summers before joining the San Diego service. Now a Lifeguard sergeant, O’Hare, compact and nervy, was San Diego’s 1972 Lifeguard of the Year.

He describes himself as “not fast, but strong.” When he tried out for State guards, he competed with 100 others. The test, which O’Hare says is “much harder” than San Diego’s, included 1,000 meters rough water in twenty minutes or less, followed immediately by a 1,000-meter run-swim-run, followed by another 300-meter surf swim. By the end, “all but about 18 guys had dropped out.” Those guys got the jobs, without any special schooling. “They just send you out, ready to go.” Training took place on the beach, under an experienced guard.

O’Hare credits his water skill and strength to years of bodysurfing. He is locally known as a “super”-body-surfer. The San Diego Lifeguard Service has a film of Mike O’Hare and another body surfer. They drop down the face of a fast-breaking overhead wave, inches apart, and suddenly O’Hare stands up on the other guy’s back.

Paul went to Bonita Cove next day and swam the course, not for time but just to do it. He went back twice a day until he felt comfortable, then strong. He learned to check his course without slowing down. He got used to the salt, and the dark, and swimming with a mouthful of wave water. He judged his motion against the parallel shore, where it was obvious, instead of against the far buoy, where it wasn’t. He thought about his shape in the water, the flow of water around his shoulders, the suction under his belly, the lift of his elbows.

He worked out in the ocean, until the bay swim became pool-simple. He swam from Bird Rock to Crystal Pier, and surprised himself by not thinking about the distance.

A few weeks after he began his workouts, Paul passed the Lifeguard swimming test. The supervisor checked Paul’s name, but recorded no time. Swimming speed alone wouldn’t make him a guard.

“The kind of person we’re looking for,” says Lifeguard Lieutenant Frank Day, “is a good-quality, conscientious person with as many water skills as possible.” The Service does not court professionals, nor beach-boy types. “We’re interested in someone who’s pursuing a degree, and only later, with a little experience, might want a lifeguard career.”

Day, who doubles as a black-belt karate instructor, is sleek as a silver bullet. He radiates the confidence and good cheer conferred by seventeen years experience handling emergencies from the appalling to the picayune.

He began as a part-time guard during his student days. While working on a teaching credential, he got his promotion to Lieutenant. That was it for teaching — the “romantic” notion of the teacher as an “instrument” of learning was yielding to the teacher as a “tool of the administration.” The Lifeguard Service had only begun to flourish, and welcomed contributions.

Day illustrates the differences between the old Guards and the new: in 1956, a guard didn't even need any particular experience to be hired as a full-time ocean professional. When Day joined, two years part-time experience in addition to the school were needed.

When he tested into the Service in 1958, Frank Day was the third guard ever to pass the 500-meter swim in less than seven minutes. Now, he says, around 40% of lifeguard candidates can do it.

Paul heard the City wouldn’t hire you with long hair, so before he went for his Civil Service interview, he cut it. The other guys in the waiting room hadn’t cut theirs, though — they looked like shoo-in lifeguard material, wearing their experience in bleachy surfer curls.

When Paul’s interview came, three city employees, one with longish hair and none of them lifeguards, quizzed him on a variety of topics, none of which had much to do with lifeguarding. Paul went along, tried to fit in his qualifications where he could, but mainly got the feeling thet they just wanted to look at him.

Later in May, he got a card in the mail telling him he had passed the interview and been assigned a preference number — 124. So at least that many had passed the swim and interview. Scuttlebutt said that fifty or sixty applicants might be accepted to Lifeguard School. Later he heard that more guards were hanging on to their old jobs, so only twenty or thirty would get in. The number finally leveled at forty or fifty, not all of whom would be given jobs, even if they passed the school. By this time, with his 124, Paul figured he was out of it, anyway.

According to Mike O’Hare, mental alertness is more important than physical speed. Given an equal start in rough surf, the guard with speed, the guard with strength, and the guard with wits will all reach a victim at about the same time. What counts is an ability to recognize and act on a situation before it becomes a major problem.

In addition to the obvious capabilities — eyesight, strength — O’Hare looks for someone who is “willing to be conscientious. Someone who looks for the unexpected.” Someone who keeps in shape, and wants to go further with his ability.

O’Hare shakes his head over a few really close big-surf rescues, where he’s nearly lost it himself; he describes a different feeling of helplessness when confronted by serious accident victims who are about to go sour. After a while, you “realize how undertrained you are.” Increasing numbers of guards become paramedics. Emergency Medical Technicians. A guard must remain in top physical condition to meet the demands of his job, and so he runs, swims, and plays hard, until Lifeguarding becomes an essential expression of his physical confidence. Other guards work to improve the technical capacity of the Service — San Diego guard Bill Owen has developed a rescue board now used all over the West Coast and elsewhere.

Paul made the job rounds at Solar, Ryan, and General Dynamics before he got another card telling him to report for a physical at the City Clinic. Twenty others waited for their check-ups when he got there, all of whom seemed to know each other. Each had a number, some higher than Paul’s. They speculated on the number’s significance, swapped rumors and Lifeguard School horror stories.

When the doctor finished, he gave Paul a clearance slip and told him to call Aquatic Headquarters for a Lifeguard interview, within the next week.

Paul went around the corner to a pay phone, and the Lifeguard receptionist told him to come on over, now.

O’Hare grew up with a clear image of the lifeguard's role. Now that he’s a professional, he can still say that he likes what he's doing. From where he’s standing he can see, across the Cove, La Jolla Shores, Black’s Beach cliffs, Torrey Pines and beyond.

“It’s beautiful. I’m outside every day. It’s always new and changing. I don’t dislike coming to work.”

O’Hare could have become almost anything — a teacher, perhaps. But his teacher friends — “they’re always griping and complaining.”

Lifeguard Lieutenant Al Bruton interviewed Paul in the Aquatics Headquarters’ wood-paneled conference room. Above Bruton’s head a trophy marlin leaped. To his back, a sweep’ "of glass displayed Ocean Beach, the Mission Bay Channel, and Mission Beach.

Bruton, crisp as a new blue uniform, explored Paul’s ability, experience and motivation. Paul finally had a chance to spill some of his feelings about the ocean to someone who understood.

Bruton said they’d let him know.

“Basically, it's a job I enjoy,” says Lt. Day. It's not the “ 'Old School' rule with a hammer.” Rather, the Lifeguard Service strives for an “efficient organization. We're looking for a more communicative atmosphere between employee and supervisor."

One of the reasons Day enjoys his job is that, in addition to physical compatibilities, he’s dealing with people of the same intellectual level; most guards are college students or graduates. “It’s a nice atmosphere,” he says. The demands of his job are direct, immediate. Being a lifeguard is being with people, “with Nature.”

There are squirrels on the porch at Lifeguard Control; gulls and pigeons flock on the lawn. The Rat Race is elsewhere. “It may sound funny,” he says, “but this work is conducive to mental tranquility.”

Less than a week before he knew school began, Paul received a letter, telling him to report to the first day of classes with a pair of red trunks and a bag lunch.

Class began at 8:00. Harbor Patrolman Dave Peterson instructed the class in emergency procedures, radio operation, and public relations. Paramedic Joe Barnett gave instruction in first aid, with particular emphasis on cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Numerous films demonstrated lifeguard tactics, ocean effects, and dangerous marine organisms. Mike O’Hare conducted practical water exercises to sharpen reactions. The students swam these exercises in the Bay, on sandy beaches and reef beaches, in storm surf and flat water.

Paul learned how to get out across rocks in big surf: he swam through shallow tide pools between swells, and held onto the reef with bleeding knuckles while waves pounded over his back in the Casa Slot. He clutched at eel grass in rip currents so strong he could not pull himself to shore ten feet away, and got some idea how it might feel to be helpless in that. He learned how to use the torpedo buoy, rescue board, landline and grappling hook.

He took written tests every day.

At the end of each class, Frank Day supervised a grueling run-swim-run of up to a mile. The drill seemed designed to give the instructors maximum sadistic glee.

It all reminded Paul of boot camp. He went home each evening exhausted, and did not party.

Regarding ocean conditions during the week of Lifeguard School, O’Hare says he “likes to see it tough.” New guards should have a good idea of the “scope of the job.” In addition, the school itself demonstrates to guard candidates the son of water performance expected on a tough rescue. Says O’Hare, “We try and show how bad it can be.”

Bad? O’Hare describes one incident in which two guards made a rescue to a boat breaking up in the Mission Bay Channel. As-they neared the boat, heavy surf swept the two over the jetty, onto .the north side rocks. One guard was unconscious. His companion revived him, they helped each other back over the jetty, and completed the rescue. Both guards were later hospitalized.

What accounts for the Lifeguard’s willingness to take this sort of thumping? O’Hare laughs. Confronted with a rescue, he’s never seen a guard say, “No ... I’m not going to do it. It’s too big today. It’s too big to go out." There’s a responsibility involved with being a guard. “It changes your personality. You’re not the same as the average bystander.” One of the principal functions of the Lifeguard School is to instill this responsibility.

Frank Day has seen the school metamorphize. “We’re bigger on first aid, now, neck and spine injuries ... Cliff rescues — there used to be few. Now — well, they're like ants at Black’s.” There are more spots, more accidents and tougher ones, more for the new guard to know.

The lifeguard candidate, says Day, is assumed to know nothing. “When we’re done with him, he's qualified to guard on any beach or pool in the world.”

Paul learned under, and with, some of the finest water-men on the West Coast. By the end of school week, he felt he could handle nearly any situation that might arise, and knew he had the right back-up.

Paul got one of the twenty-two jobs available; everyone else who passed the school went on a waiting list, to get jobs later in the summer or next year.

As is customary for new guards, Paul guarded his first summer on the Bay. He took an assignment at Leisure Lagoon, notorious for its “maggots,” mobs of little kids, most of whom can’t swim. His first, and subsequently most common, official action was to chase a dog off the beach. He later pulled out over a dozen tots who lost their footing on the underwater drop-off.

Next summer, he worked the ocean, making his first rescue on Horseshoe Reef, a woman caught in heavy surf and afraid to come in over the rocks. Paul swam her on a rescue can around to Shell Beach, over a quarter mile away.

Like Mike O’Hare, Paul thinks the most ludicrous question a person can ask him as a lifeguard is “Ever make a rescue?”

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