It’s the middle of a Tuesday afternoon on busy Del Mar Beach and lifeguard Matt Becker has just received a call for medical aid. With that, he hops into a red pickup truck and lumbers his way on the sandy shore towards the 15th street surf break, slowly swerving past sandcastles and unsuspecting sunbathers.
“Please move out of the way, lifeguard coming through” he announces on the PA system as people dodge the truck. It turns out a female swimmer was stung by a stingray, something not uncommon at Del Mar. Becker situates her in the vehicle and they’re off to the beach’s newly opened safety center.
Becker is just one of the countless lifeguards who have patrolled the beach since the department was launched on March 1, 1965 — a few years after Del Mar became its own incorporated city. Back then, department pioneer Gardner Stevens, a veteran of Los Angeles County beaches, was in charge of just five people, all of whom were hired that May for the upcoming summer season. Today, Pat Vergne heads around 50 people, both seasonal and full time, who watch over Del Mar Beach, which can have an excess of 30,000 visitors per day.
However large operations have grown in the intervening years, the tasks of lifeguarding and the bond that joins them all has remained the same. Jon Edelbrock, Del Mar’s Community Service and Lifeguard Lieutenant, has been with the department in some capacity since 1992.
“At the time there’d be 500 applicants for just a few positions, it was very competitive,” he explains from the locker room at headquarters. “I never thought this would be something I’d be doing 20 years later.”
What made him expand that part-time job into a lifelong passion is something often overlooked in pop culture portrayals of lifeguards: “I think the biggest misconception is that we’re just hanging out all day.”
“Throughout my career, what I’ve found is that lifeguards are extremely interesting people and don’t fit the typical stereotype. They’re some of the most diverse and well-educated folks around,” notes Michael Martino, lifeguard supervisor for Silver Strand State Beach and author of the book “Lifeguards of San Diego County,” which was released in 2007 by Arcadia Publishing. “It’s not that shows like ‘Baywatch’ did a bad job, but I’m sure it gives an unrealistic view of what we actually do. The perception is that we talk about girls or this and that, but I’ve had some great philosophical conversations in the lifeguard towers.”
Since its launch 47 years ago, the department has routinely attracted the same kind of people; those with a passion for beach life and the urge to help the community, many of whom have gone to distinguished positions throughout the region and country. One of the newest recruits is Jonathan Stewart, a 19 year-old graduate of Canyon Crest Academy who has been with the department for a month so far.
“It’s been great,” Stewart said. “The rookie school was pretty strenuous, but every day is new.”