By Amy Orr, Special to the Independent
The physical features of Laguna Beach are beautiful, but its cliffs and coves can prove challenging for recreational swimmers. Local lifeguards understand the city’s curving coastline and know how to handle it, according to Marine Safety Captain Tom Trager.
“Other cities have long stretches of sand where lifeguards can see from tower to tower, but our beach isn’t like that,” Trager said. “Training is crucial for our guards because they often work in isolated areas. Guards have to know how to handle emergencies on their own; it could be a few minutes before a support vehicle arrives.”
Each summer, Laguna’s Junior Guard program injects 500 more beach-goers with local knowledge of ocean risks by giving youngsters an early start in lifeguard training. Children as young as 8 years old are eligible, as long as they pass a swim test: 100 yards in two minutes and 20 seconds. In most cities, the minimum age is 9.
“I grew up in Newport,” said Junior Guard lead instructor Ally McCormick. “But I started Junior Guards in Laguna because I could join when I was 8.”
McCormick, now 22, described her guard experience as a good balance of instruction and fun. She became a Laguna lifeguard at 16 and was asked to be a Junior Guard instructor during her fourth summer. Currently a chemistry major and education minor in her senior year at Brigham Young University, she hopes to become a teacher so that she can keep spending summers running the Junior Guard program.
“I idolized my Junior Guard instructors,” McCormick said. “I wanted to grow up and be just like them.”
Some parents in Laguna Beach consider Junior Guard training essential for children growing up by the water.
“I think it’s important for local kids to know the beaches they will be swimming,” said Greg Collins, who enrolled his son Jackson to ensure his safety in the ocean.
Parent Justin Stykeman voiced a similar thought. “Junior Guard instruction teaches kids about the coastline, the coves, and things to look out for. It makes them ocean savvy.”
Stykeman’s sons, Evan and Benji, said they didn’t have much choice about joining the guards, but they are enjoying swimming and learning about the ocean. “All of my friends do it,” said Benji. “On the last day, we have a big workout called ‘Ironchild’ and then there’s a party with dessert and soda.”
The “Ironchild” endurance race takes place on the final day of the Junior Guard program. Participants are separated into three different age groups (A’s, B’s, and C’s). According to McCormick, the A’s (12-15 year olds) generally run the six towers at Main Beach and complete six swims around ocean buoys. The B’s (10-11 year olds) run about three-quarter of a mile and swim approximately 600 yards at Shaw’s Cove or Crescent Bay. The C’s (8-9 year olds) run close to a half mile and swim 300 yards at Diver’s Cove. Distances and locations can vary due to fluctuations in tidal conditions.
Dale Ghere, a Laguna lifeguard in the 1960’s and 1970’s, trained Junior Guards from 1962-1974. He said he loved the way the program taught youngsters a water-oriented lifestyle and helped them learn the culture of the beach along with proper beach etiquette and a true appreciation for the ocean. He said it’s still essential for lifeguards to pass on skills like rowing, diving, paddling, and surfing.
When Ghere led the guards, they met two times a day for two hours at a time. The program was free and 40-60 children participated. Now, Laguna Beach offers two different three-week sessions (June 26- July 13 and July 17- August 3) and each session has two different, three-hour time slots at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Trager said that nearly 550 youngsters enter the Laguna Junior Guards each summer.
Last year was Arthur Proctor’s first year as a Junior Guard. Although his family moved to Seattle, they came back to Laguna to let Arthur and his younger brother, Malachy, participate in Junior Guards this summer.
In the words of their mother, Luce Proctor, “Both boys come home every day with a grin from ear to ear, totally exhausted. Every aspect the lifeguards and coaches do make the three weeks fun, educational, exciting, and safe.”
Malachy said, “I have learned sooooo much and now feel confident in the water.”
“It’s the best $280 I spend on each kiddo all year, life-changing and more importantly life-saving… we will be back again next year,” said Proctor.