Lifeguards do get injured and see some gnarly situations, though, so it’s not all sugar.
The other day I was thinking back on some of the most hairball rescues I have been involved in with the Lifeguard Service and figured I should write a few of them down. Here’s one rescue a friend reminded me of the other day. I am particularly proud of this one:
The surf had been solid all summer, which is uncommon for Southern California. This day in particular happened to be bigger than the rest.
I was working in one of those satellite stations by the shoreline in Ocean Beach. The guards who were working in the towers a quarter-mile up and down the beach from me that summer were exceptional lifeguards, which was reassuring because you want a solid waterman to have your back when you’re rescuing people in big, dangerous surf.
It was a beautiful sunny Saturday and the surf was stacking up and slamming top to bottom across the entire beach from one jetty to the other. The surf was completely closing out the beach, barreling over a real low-tide, shallow sandbar.
There was a group of over 20 swimmers who all braved the surf together and were bouncing along the shallow sandbar inside of the thumping surf. I noticed pretty early on that they were all drifting close to a pretty nuts rip current that was starting to flash, so I radioed it in and ran down to move them somewhere safer.
As I was running down there, a really big set loaded up and detonated on the entire group.
As I got closer to them, I noticed the other guards were following me out. A few seconds later, the entire group was in the rip current, and most of them were starting to panic and drown.
I booked it toward the kids and the weakest swimmers first, swimming as fast as I possibly could, and within seconds of getting to the most critical members in the group, I had six victims struggling to stay afloat on my little rescue buoy.
Rescue buoys are designed to hold two to three victims at the most, so it was sinking with six. I ended up having to hold two exhausted kids’ heads above water by wrapping my arms around their chests and kicking my fins like crazy.
As more set waves broke on our heads, I was losing some of the victims underwater before quickly finding and collecting them as we all struggled to the surface.
It was too dangerous to take them back in through the surf, so I quickly went unorthodox and swam everyone back into the rip current in hopes of getting blown back through the surf and out to sea into calmer waters. Once outside, the rescue boat and personal watercraft (PWC) that was responding could snatch the victims up and take them into the safe harbor, where the victims could undergo a quick medical examination to see if they had inhaled any water that needed to get drained out of their lungs at the hospital.
When we were getting blown out through the rip current, I noticed the other two guards who were backing me up: each had a handful of victims and was following my unorthodox lead into the rip current and out to sea.
My victims were in so much panic and getting so tired that some of them had a lot of trouble hanging onto the buoy. I ended up holding some of the victims’ heads out of the water by their hair.
I was juggling humans, picking one out of the water after they had slipped off the buoy and exchanging them for a breath with another who would slip off. This went on for a minute or so until we made it far enough outside of the breaking waves that they could all grip the buoy without constant punishment from the surf.
The guards backing me up were doing the same thing. It was so heavy!
Before long we had a PWC and a lifeguard on a big rescue paddleboard who met us outside the surf, helping out. Those guards took our victims three at a time to the rescue boat, which was just outside of us.
Luckily, we saved all of their lives. One of the victims and his son came back to find me working in my tower later in the day and gave me a really gratifying thank-you speech, and asked me my name before they went on their way. He ended up writing a really cool letter to the lifeguard chief and the mayor, expressing his gratitude.
A few days later, I showed up to work and was awarded a letter of commendation from the lifeguard chief for the rescue.
I never saw the article, but friends said I was written up in the newspaper for the rescue as well. I was just stoked to have pulled it off, but a little extra gratitude from the city also made me feel pretty good.
All of the operations and physical training regimens we do on a regular basis really do pay off when you are thrown into high-stress and high-exertion rescues. Lifeguarding can be so heavy.
Because of rescues like this one, and all of the critical medical aids we respond to on a regular basis, I take my job really seriously.
Photos: Michael Sangiolo, taken during a different rescue.