By Rob LeDonne
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.”
Dull and stressful at times, Stewart also spoke about the lifeguarding misconceptions: “It comes off as relaxed, but when there’s an emergency that all changes.”
Nineteen-year-old Torrey Pines High graduate Lauren Humann notes how much employees get invested in the department: “I find myself here at the beach even when I’m not working, and it’s almost hard to relax. It’s a team thing, we rely on others a lot; I probably hang out with my fellow lifeguards more than my friends.”
“When you’re in tense situations with people, you have a greater amount of respect for them,” explained Edelbrock of the partnership that forms between fellow lifeguards. “We always back each other up, and that alone creates an incredibly strong bond.”
Said Martino: “Success or failure is pretty obvious. You don’t sort of get to obfuscate and say, ‘Well, we tried pretty hard to save him so pat yourself on the back.’ Because it’s similar to being a firefighter or in the military, it’s very fraternal.”
Another bond the department has, albeit more unusual, is one with New Zealand natives thanks to a unique kind of exchange program. According to lifeguard Tyler Grant, every summer Del Mar sends two lifeguards to patrol New Zealand beaches and they return the favor. “When our department grew in size, we needed boat operators and it turns out New Zealand has some of the best in the world,” said Grant. “All of the boats that we use now are from New Zealand. I’ve been there myself about eight time so far.”
Summer 2012 has turned out to be a notable season for the department, the centerpiece of which is the opening of their brand new safety center which was 15 years in the making. Said Edelbrock: “In the late ‘90s beach attendance increased along with our staff; we just outgrew the old building. We’re still getting used to this one.”
An opening ceremony was held in June and was attended by a plethora of lifeguards from years past. A Hall of Fame was also launched this season, the brainchild of Becker; the first three inductees are Stevens, veteran lifeguard Jim Lischer and former head Grant Larson.
As the tourist season continues, the lifeguards of Del Mar Beach will continue to do what they do best. Sums up Martino: “For someone who can sit in a tower and watch people all day long and then, on a moment’s notice, go out there and make a rescue... it takes a special kind of person.”
For more information, check out an extensive site run by original lifeguard Jack Ross detailing the department’s history at www.delmarlifeguard.com