Perched atop baby-blue towers scattered along the coast, the lifeguards who watch the water from behind polarized sunglasses and thick layers of zinc are a staple of the beaches that sustain the Central Coast.
The mix of authority, adrenaline, sun, and sand make for a perfect summer job for many of the roughly 140 seasonal guards who swell the county’s ranks from Memorial Day through Labor Day each year.
“I grew up idolizing the lifeguards,” says Patricia Jake Stark, who joined the local Junior Lifeguards at age 8. “I knew from a very young age that ocean rescue was what I wanted to do.”
In pop culture, movies and on TV, lifeguards are routinely fetishized as abnormally attractive watchdogs of the sun-soaked masses. Every pool, lake or beach has a Billy Hargrove prowling to “Moving in Stereo,” or a Wendy Peppercorn like the Sandlot boys drool over.
Still, lifeguarding is rarely a viable long-term career. Stark, a 21-year-old Santa Cruz High alum, is one of many whose dreams of patrolling the sand eventually morph into the pursuit of better-paid and more plentiful jobs in local fire departments, the military or emergency medicine. In Stark’s case, lifeguarding led to becoming a search and rescue swimmer who jumps out of helicopters for the U.S. Navy.
Part of the challenge is that the pressure of preventing drowning doesn’t necessarily translate to high pay. Most local lifeguards make $15-20 an hour, on par with many local restaurants or service sector jobs.
“You don’t get into lifeguarding to get rich,” says Anaiis Nysether, a 22-year-old seasonal lifeguard who plays water polo at Cabrillo College. “Most of us have either another job, or this is just a summer gig while they are home from school.”
At state beaches, the California Department of Parks and Recreation employs two full-time lifeguards charged with enforcing the law at beaches they patrol. These guards also lean on seasonal guards, many of whom return for multiple summers, to help manage tasks like dispatch, scheduling and communication with the public.
All told, Santa Cruz area lifeguards have saved 7,657 souls and presided over more than 66 million beach visitors since the United States Lifesaving Association started keeping records in 1968. Each year, they’ll rescue about 200 people from local waters and keep watch over about 1 million beachgoers.
The result is “a culture that transcends specific postings,” Stark says. On a personal level, she says being a lifeguard “helped me find my voice. I learned how to be assertive in emergency situations, and that I wanted to make a career out of saving lives.”
On any given weekday from June through August, the hundreds of little bodies skittering around the sand at Cowell Beach create the same kind of choreographed frenzy as a flock of Starlings. It takes a cadre of seasoned instructors to corral the Junior Lifeguards decked out in bright reds and navy blues.
“OK guys, let’s keep the energy up for these push-ups,” an instructor yells to a loosely assembled group of nearly two dozen 12-year-olds on a recent Tuesday.
“I can feel my sweats filling with sand,” one junior guard whispers to another as they dive down into plank position.
On this mid-July day, a thick layer of clouds keeps the temperature brisk at the water’s edge. Some make the rookie mistake of starting their daily calisthenics routine while still wearing sweat suits. Veterans know to always ditch your gear before the workout; much like a rescue, you never know how long the push-ups, crunches, lunges, and flutter kicks will last.
By now a rite of passage in Santa Cruz and neighboring cities, the summer Junior Lifeguard program supplies a steady stream of young athletic talent to keep towers around the county staffed. Over 1,000 junior guards enroll in various city and state parks programs each year to learn the basics of ocean safety and conservation.
For Jason Sweatt, a 42-year-old Capitola transplant originally from Alabama, signing his 5-year-old son Cody up for junior guards was a no-brainer. With a lifetime spent in the water as a surf instructor, and as a former lifeguard himself, Sweatt is more familiar than most with the skills his son is learning.
“I have pulled people out of the water that were unconscious in Waikiki and required CPR,” says Sweatt, who co-founded the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance in 2011 after spending his first few years post-Army service working in Hawaii as a surf instructor. “It’s those basic lifesaving skills that you carry on and never let go. I want that for Cody.”
It takes time to develop a good lifeguard. In addition to runs and workouts on the sand, basic lessons like how to identify a water emergency eventually evolve into more advanced mock-rescue drills.
During more intense rescue drills, a fellow guard simulates the behaviors of someone drowning, such as frantically trying to climb onto a rescuer in the surf. Uninitiated lifeguards can easily find themselves in danger from not only rough water, but the person they’re trying to save.
“We are exposed to some dangerous environmental factors,” says Anna Marie Scott, a 19-year-old in her third season as a summer lifeguard, from riptides and rocks to skin cancer.
Still, it’s hard to argue with the benefits of working on the beach.
Isaiah Mullen, a 21-year-old Santa Cruz native, saw it as a natural step when he became a seasonal guard four years ago while enrolled at UCSC.
“After doing junior guards for years, it just felt like I was setup,” says Mullen, a legal studies major who previously studied and played water polo at Cabrillo. “And who wouldn’t want to work at the beach while they are in college?”
With a steady pipeline of junior guards growing up idolizing heroes in red and blue uniforms, lifeguarding has endured and evolved despite pay that—like many jobs in Santa Cruz County—has struggled to keep pace with the skyrocketing costs of living.
“Everybody knows it’s difficult living in Santa Cruz,” says Brendan Daly, a 33-year-old marine safety officer who transitioned to a full-time position with the Santa Cruz Fire Department after 11 years as a seasonal guard. “You have to really grind to find a job that will allow you to stay in a place like this.”
Virtually every city guard in the towers is a seasonal, part-time employee earning between $14-20 an hour with limited benefits, including health insurance for job-related incidents. Leadership positions like beach lieutenants and beach captains pay $17-24 per hour, compared to a full-time firefighter salary of $35-50 per hour, not including potential overtime.
At state beaches, the majority of lifeguards are also seasonal, with pay starting at $15 per hour and limited benefits. Full-time state peace officers are generally the guards driving white pick-up trucks outfitted with long rifles that supervise and patrol the shoreline, who earn $20-33 an hour not including potential overtime.
“In Santa Cruz, (lifeguarding) is not a feasible career,” says seasonal guard Nysether. The tradeoff, she says, is that the job has allowed her to gain emergency medical experience while doing student nursing work at Dominican Hospital.
Nysether is also one of many guards who pursues year-round work as a rescue swimmer with the fire department’s Marine Safety Unit. While lifeguards do the legwork of standing long rotations in the towers watching the water line, rescue swimmers are emergency responders with specialized medical and rescue training. Unlike lifeguards, rescue swimmers typically have other duties as firefighters, police officers or medical specialists.
Before he became a full-time marine safety officer with the fire department, Daly says he worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet, like doing surf photography or videography for the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
At 33, this is Daly’s 16th year as a lifeguard and fifth in a full-time role supervising a small army of seasonal guards. He studied cultural anthropology at UC Santa Barbara, and after graduation was discouraged to find that most of the tribes of the world had already been discovered. He went back to working as a lifeguard as he’d done over summers in college, and though the career path hasn’t always been clear, Daly says the intangible benefits of training young people how to save lives makes up for it.
“Just last year we had several former junior guards rescue a swimmer in distress,” Daly says.
To become a city lifeguard in Santa Cruz, applicants must survive a gauntlet of physical challenges.
Just to earn the chance to interview, an aspiring guard must complete a 1,000-meter open water swim in under 20 minutes, then a 200-meter run, 400-meter swim and another 200-meter run all in under 10 minutes.
With the scarcity of full-time lifeguarding jobs, aspiring guards often try to separate themselves from their peers by shelling out for professional certifications, gym memberships or specialized personal trainers. Many participate in sports like swimming and water polo during the offseason, sometimes while also studying for credentials such as emergency medical technician, or EMT.
“Being an EMT isn’t a requirement,” Daly says, “but it is preferred.”
If city lifeguards want to advance beyond entry-level pay, holding an EMT certification becomes a necessity.
Being familiar with the Central Coast isn’t a requirement, but there is an inherent advantage for those who start training nearby.
“I was lucky to be local and have grown up here in the junior guards program,” Stark says. “I saw outsiders come in and struggle to paddle or navigate the kelp fields or handle the cold water.”
For Stark and other guards, a typical day on the tower starts around 10:30 a.m. and runs until about 6:30 p.m. Aside from a daily fitness break or nature’s occasional call, lifeguards must stay focused on the water while surrounded by a sea of distractions that has only grown with the region’s tourism industry.
Local lifeguards have completed 1,283 reported rescues since 2015. Most often, they leave their towers to help beachgoers who have either over-indulged in seaside libations or overestimated their ability—usually, some combination of the two.
Hazards like riptides, shore breaks, cliff falls, sneaker waves, and medical emergencies on the beach all present potential threats at land’s end. Just go to Youtube and search “Santa Cruz water rescue,” and all kinds of drone footage and news reports will surface. In recent years, the number of rescues has spiked during busy warmer months.
Last month, rescue swimmers pulled out a young boy whose head was the only part of his body visible in rough water near Sunny Cove. In July of last year, a 10-year-old was rushed to the hospital after he was buried in sand while digging a tunnel and had to be pulled out by a lifeguard. Just south in Monterey County, both a lifeguard and a swimmer in duress about 30 feet from shore had to be pulled out of the waves by Cal Fire crews last fall.
Hearing from lifeguards first-hand about these incidents, however, is rare.
Lifeguards are bound by the same medical privacy laws as doctors and nurses, and they’re notoriously tight-lipped about their most harrowing rescues. Rather, they speak in general terms about “an unconscious male” or “distressed elderly female bather” swept out to sea.
“These moments are some of the most traumatic in people’s lives,” Mullen says. “It’s important to always keep that in perspective when talking about the rescues we make.”
POLICING THE BEACH
Depending which department they work for, lifeguards’ tools of the trade might include jet skis, pick-up trucks, rescue boards, helicopters, swim fins, rescue buoys—or, sometimes, guns.
Full-time State Parks Lifeguards are trained peace officers whose authority extends across California. As a result, they carry .40-caliber pistols on their hips and a long rife in their trucks during shifts on the beach. Unlike their seasonal counterparts, peace officers are charged with enforcing state laws and issuing citations, or potentially making arrests.
Far from Baywatch stereotypes, the role many lifeguards play in the coastal ecosystem is as much that of warden as rescuer. They’re the first line of defense in preventing emergencies by telling the public about rapidly changing coastal hazards, shark sightings and more.
“I view myself as an educator and informer, not as an enforcer,” says seventh-season State Parks Lifeguard Jackson Shaffer-Yunger, 28, who went to Harbor High and played water polo at Cabrillo. “I recognize that not everyone who comes to our beaches has grown up with the ocean the way I did, so I try to be patient.”
The vast and dynamic 29 miles of coastline in Santa Cruz County are watched by a network of emergency water-rescue units and personnel from the Santa Cruz Fire Department, Central Fire Protection District, Aptos Fire Department, California State Parks Lifeguards, and the U.S. Coast Guard. These federal, state and local agencies monitor and respond to everything from rocky shores to high-traffic beaches, all on the edge of one of the nation’s largest underwater sanctuaries.
When a water emergency happens somewhere in the county, the agencies use a grid to decide who will respond. Guards who work under the city’s fire department cover Cowell, Main and Capitola beaches. State Parks guards cover state parks and sections of unincorporated Santa Cruz County.
Often, the work is more pragmatic than high-risk rescue scenarios.
“We reunite lost children with their families every day,” Nysether, says.
It’s this kind of work, says State Parks Lifeguard Supervisor Eddie Rhee-Pizano, that keeps the county’s most popular beaches safe.
“It’s the seasonal guards that are the unsung heroes,” Rhee-Pizano says. “These young people step up and make it possible to open up as many towers as we do.”
Lifeguarding is one of many professions in California that has had to adapt to a changing economy and surging costs of living.
Local law enforcement departments and the U.S. military increasingly say that recruiting can be a struggle thanks to a shift away from physical labor and the difficulty of paying for housing and other necessities on low starting salaries. Lifeguarding is something of an outlier because of the job’s unusual sun-soaked allure, but state and local departments have expanded junior guard programs in recent years to keep the pond stocked with able-bodied candidates.
Like cops or firefighters, there’s also a hierarchy to lifeguarding. For those who excel in junior guards, like former fire department Lifeguard of the Year Henry Tobias, there are distinctions to strive for. One mark of prestige is becoming part of “Captain’s Corp,” or the Marine Safety Unit within the fire department.
Looking ahead, Tobias hopes that lifeguarding will help give him a leg up applying to state and local fire departments.
“Working as a lifeguard helped me get exposure to local fire departments, and that motivated me to get my paramedic degree,” Tobias said. “I grew up wanting to be a lifeguard and a firefighter.”
He may get the chance to realize both dreams in the same place.
In addition to the Marine Safety Unit, 17 local firefighters are certified as rescue swimmers, enabling them to provide emergency water response during the off-season from fire engines. The 15-year-old program was adopted by the fire department to increase its capacity to protect ocean-goers during the offseason when summer lifeguards go back to school or work.
For those who return to the towers year after year, like State Parks guard Shaffer-Yunger, lifeguarding comes with a sense of purpose that can be hard to replicate.
“Working for State Parks has been one of the best jobs I have ever worked,” he says. “I have bussed tables, worked in food prep and hung drywall, but nothing as rewarding an experience as lifeguarding.”
UPDATE: Aug. 7, 11:10 a.m. — This story has been updated to clarify the Santa Cruz Fire and California State Parks departments’ overtime pay policy, and the title of Santa Cruz Fire Department Marine Safety Officer Brendan Daly.