Solana Beach Lifeguards to recall the ebbs and flows of local marine safety careers at Solana Beach Civic & Historical Society meeting


Beached whales. Leaking boats. Roaring rip currents. Menacing orcas. Stranded seals. Cliffside rescues. Bluff failures. Broken surfboards. More stingray barb injuries than you could count. Oh, and let’s not forget the fatal great white shark attack in 2008. Then, just when Solana Beach lifeguards thought they had seen it all, a tiny virus completely shut down local beaches in 2020.

After almost 80 years of keeping folks safe in the ocean, Solana Beach lifeguards now were tasked with keeping folks out of the water and off the sand.

Join the Solana Beach Civic & Historical Society starting at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 14 at Fletcher Cove Community Center for an evening with former San Diego County Lifeguard Captain Peter Zovanyi and colleagues as they look back over long careers and share memories of the life-saving business.

The San Diego County Lifeguard Service was founded in 1941 when county supervisors finally agreed to funding one guard per each beach area. A squad of nine men was hired at monthly pay of $115; the captain, William Rumsey, made $160. In 1980, the Society donated two ship-to-shore marine-band radios to the Solana Beach Lifeguards -- the first ever to be used by the service. Nine years later, the Society provided audio-visual equipment for the guards to use for marine safety education.

Today, the City of Solana Beach has its own Marine Safety Department -- responsible for water, beach and bluff safety for the public use of the city’s 1.7 miles of coastline. The department operates with five full-time employees, complimented with 55 seasonal employees. The department primarily prevents and responds to waterborne emergencies -- working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Guards also conduct animal rescues, dive rescues, cliff rescues and provide emergency medical assistance as needed.

Zovanyi became a seasonal lifeguard in Solana Beach in 1966 when the service was still run by the County of San Diego, and rose through the ranks to captain over the following 13 years. His family moved to California in 1958 after immigrating from Hungary. Zovanyi learned to surf “on the back of a Samoan first surfboard,” Zovanyi recalled in a 2015 edition of Ocean magazine devoted to Solana Beach lifeguards. “Perhaps what I was most proud of was upholding our record of never allowing a drowning at any of our guarded beaches,” he wrote.

That record was upheld by off-duty guards, too. In 2006, local surfer and 18-year-old Solana Beach Lifeguard Ashley Benedict was checking the waves in Carlsbad when a Utah tourist was caught in a strong rip current and started going under. Although she was fully dressed in Levis, Benedict managed to swim to the man -- who was three times her size -- and get him out of the current and into helping hands of State Parks Lifeguard Dan Carr.

Women first joined the County Lifeguards in the 1970s, when it was still quite rare to find many girls on surfboards. Five of the female Solana Beach Lifeguards were honored Aug. 15, 2023 in a “Salute to First Responders: Women on the Front Line” during a San Diego Padres game. Sophia Zilberman, Karli Canale, Kelly Telebrico, Emma Hart and Kensey Bettencourt represented the city during the ceremony. — News release