By Donna Furey | LB Indy
Nineteen-year-old Chris Garau graduated with honors from San Juan Hills high school and soon will be competing in the water polo Junior Olympics. This summer is his first as a rookie Laguna Beach lifeguard, stationed on Main Beach.
But lifeguarding and community service in Laguna Beach are a tradition in the Garau family.
His late grandfather, John Garau, also worked as a lifeguard in Laguna Beach as well as on Catalina Island after serving during World War II in the Army Air Corps. He liked to share stories with his grandson of his early days as a guard, including lifeguard parties at actress Bette Davis’ house on Woods Cove and getting fired for waterskiing while on duty during a busy July 4 weekend.
In later years, the elder Garau owned Reef Realty at Coast Highway and Thalia Street, where he spent a lot of time with the local surfers at Thalia and St. Ann’s beaches. In summers, he was known to anchor his sailboat off Thalia Street Beach and commute to and from work in the real estate office on his surfboard. The Thalia beach crew stored their surfboards under the office building and took advantage of the outdoor shower after a surf session.
Until his death last year, Garau, nick-named Johnny after the Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller, held the title of oldest surviving lifeguard in Laguna Beach. He was a “waterman,” said local resident and informal lifeguard historian Dale Ghere.
Ghere says the title isn’t bestowed lightly. It defines a person whose knowledge of the ocean is gained through experience and reputation, and is fearless in bad conditions and big surf. “They can find lost watches in the sand and wandering children on the beach. They spot things before others do and jump into action with the knowledge and skill needed to solve a problem. This person loves the ocean; it’s their way of life. Surprisingly the title does not have much to do being the fastest swimmer in town or the oldest person on the beach,” Ghere said.
Prior to 1960, hiring of lifeguards was strictly by reputation, not by training, said Ghere, who helped establish the rookie training program in use today. His son became a lifeguard at 16 and followed the family tradition for six years.
Chris Garau’s grandfather was disappointed when he and his friends joined the junior lifeguard program at Strands Beach in Dana Point, where Orange County Lifeguards familiarize kids with water safety and hold athletic competitions.
Trying out and training to guard professionally, though, is a grueling process. It begins in February with a 1,000-meter swim in frigid waters from Main Beach to the rocks at Cress Street. Typically 70 to 80 aspiring lifeguards try out and about 50-60 make it through that first hurdle, said lifeguard Capt. Tom Trager. Another 10 usually drop out over the 100 hours of training required for acceptance in the Seasonal and Rookie Ocean Lifeguard Academy, a certified training program of the United States Lifesaving Association.
“Our training is considered one of the most difficult in Southern California, and it needs to be,” said Trager, noting that Laguna lacks the clear sightlines of most California beaches and lifeguards are responsible for isolated coves and bays where immediate backup is not always available.
Among the seasonal staff, Trager occasionally sees siblings and offspring of former guards.
Training involves studying emergency medicine in addition to physical training, scuba and swift water rescue training and learning how to use ropes during a cliff or rock rescue. For those who endure the training, a real camaraderie develops.
The trainees are ranked and put on a waiting list for available jobs. Chris Garau, who will be playing waterpolo at Chapman University this fall, got a call in spring.
“People get up in the morning and come to Laguna Beach. They expect to have a good day and to go home happy. It is your job to makesure that happens,” said Ghere, recalling the marching orders the lifeguard chief gave him years ago.
Now it’s the job of Garau and the scores of other guards on duty this summer in 33 towers along Laguna’s nearly six miles of coastline.