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Carmel Valley resident reflects on stint as Del Mar’s chief lifeguard

The Del Mar Lifeguard team in 2014. Carmel Valley resident Patrick Vergne has led the team for about 15 years. Courtesy photo
The Del Mar Lifeguard team in 2014. Carmel Valley resident Patrick Vergne has led the team for about 15 years. Courtesy photo

Although “Auld Lang Syne” had been sung and the ball had dropped, Del Mar’s lifeguard chief didn’t officially ring in 2015 until hundreds of Del Marians and visitors plunged into the ocean near the Del Mar Lifeguard Tower during the 29th annual Penguin Plunge on New Year’s Day.

“It’s a really fun community event,” said Patrick Vergne, who ordered 1,400 doughnuts for the occasion.

Although Vergne lives in Carmel Valley, it’s only fitting he began 2015 in Del Mar, a community he’s served for 34 years.

Vergne was a 17-year-old student at Torrey Pines High School when he started his career as a student lifeguard. At the time, he worked for the county, in what is now Solana Beach.

“A lot of my friends were working in Del Mar, and they encouraged me to come over,” Vergne recalled. “It’s a beautiful beach, beautiful community, so I made the switch. I’ve loved it ever since.”

Vergne is one of the countless lifeguards who have kept Del Mar’s beaches safe since the department launched on March 1, 1965 — a few years after Del Mar became its own incorporated city.

Back then, the department’s first captain, Gardner Stevens, was in charge of just five people. Today, Vergne maintains a staff of up to 60 during the peak season.

Del Mar may be the smallest city in the county, but it is also one of the busiest in the summer. An estimated 2 million people visited the city’s beaches last summer.

“This summer was probably the busiest season on record,” said Vergne, who has served as chief lifeguard for about 15 years. “I love it when it’s busy. We prefer constant action and good weather.”

From his early days as a student lifeguard to head of the department today, Vergne has been a part of the team as it maintained the city’s 2.5 miles of beach and underwent changes.

The department is on 17th Street, with other towers on North Beach, 29th Street, 25th Street, 20th Street and 11th Street.

Each day, lifeguards establish and maintain safe swimming and surfing areas. They monitor environmental conditions, and post weather and surf updates. Still, Del Mar beach has strong rip currents and several inshore holes.

To train for rescues, the department operates year-round cliff, swift water and scuba rescue teams. In addition, the lifeguards cross-train with the Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies and the U.S. Coast Guard.

On average, the lifeguards handle 1,400 water-related rescues and 1,100 medical aids per year.

Over the years, the department has gained responsibilities, explained Vergne, who also serves as community services director. Lifeguards issue citations for infractions that occur on the beach, including underage drinking, animal violations and parking violations.

In addition, the department handles facility rentals for Del Mar’s indoor and outdoor venues, including the Powerhouse Community Center, Powerhouse Park and Seagrove Park.

With the growing popularity of Del Mar and the department’s growing staff and responsibilities, the community celebrated the grand opening of the 17th Street beach safety center in June 2012. The $2.7 million state-of-the-art facility replaced the dilapidated tower built in 1964.

“The community has been really good to us,” said Vergne as he looked around the two-story building, complete with a first-aid room, administrative space and observation deck. The building was made possible by funds from the city and the Friends of the Powerhouse, as well as a grant from the California Coastal Conservancy.

“The building is a classic example of how the community has come together.”

Because the community has supported the department over the years, Vergne and his team strive to give back to the community. Plaques lining the walls of the first floor of the beach safety center prove how the lifeguards make a difference in Del Mar and the greater region.

The department has been recognized for its work with Naval Medical Center San Diego. Dozens of injured active-duty military, veterans and their family members visit Del Mar every Thursday for a therapeutic surf clinic, and lifeguards are there for support.

“The community has been really good to us,” said Vergne, whose team has also worked with the Del Mar Foundation and Helen Woodward Animal Center, among other organizations. “They’ve given us a lot, and we like to give back to them as well.”

Although Vergne first joined the department as a teenager because “the thought of working on the beach in the summertime just sounded great,” it’s the community that has kept him onboard for more than three decades.

“You’re working for the people, and the people here are genuinely nice,” he said.

For more about the Del Mar Lifeguards, visit www.delmarlifeguard.com.


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