Local Currents


Risk and Safety

David Vanderveen

“One percent of the population has the physical and mental ability to become an ocean lifeguard. Making the tryouts is an accomplishment, something to be proud of, not many people can. These guys and gals are studs.” – Marine Safety Chief Kevin Snow, Laguna Beach Department of Marine Safety.

There has been much debate about risk and safety in Laguna Beach this year and few people in Laguna Beach manage the dance between the two more professionally than the Laguna Beach lifeguards.

Last Saturday was the Laguna Beach lifeguard tryouts, a relatively extreme selection process to cull those who are serious about training for employment with the city Marine Safety Department from those who are not.

Tryouts start with a 1000-meter swim in a swimsuit and without goggles from Main Beach, around the swim buoy, to Bird Rock and back in under 20 minutes. The air was 46 degrees when my 16-year-old son, Schuyler, and I left the house. The water temperature, according to lifeguards, was in the mid-to-low 50s that morning with a brisk 20-knot wind out of the northwest, generating significant chop, current and wind chill. Participants have to complete two more run-swim events to advance into training.

Preparation is key to getting through the first phase of selection.

A week prior, Schuyler had decided to start training for the ocean swims with his friend, Austin, who also wanted to make it through the lifeguard tryouts. The water has been in the 50s in Laguna and the lads don’t have much body fat. They wanted to swim from Pearl to Thalia Street and Schuyler had to get out at Cress Street from hypothermia. He couldn’t drive his car home. My wife and I went to pick him up and found him shaking uncontrollably and confused, but he was committed to making it through tryouts.

Fortunately, it was ski week in Laguna and Schuyler had just gotten a cast off from a snowboarding mishap over New Year’s, so he and I stayed in town and worked hard in the pool, ocean and beach for the tryouts. We were spending an hour or two in the pool each day followed by 1-2 mile runs to get my son’s core temperature up and then gradually extending our swims, doing multiple workouts per day—a hell week of our own design. He completed a test swim of the 1,000-meter Bird Rock trial on Thursday in roughly 17 minutes and was still functional.

Saturday was fairly brutal with early morning rain, frigid winds and more chop and current than we had anticipated. Even though Schuyler was getting hypothermic in between events, we were able to warm him up enough to continue and he was determined to make it through and persevered. As a father, it was a gratifying experience to see my son and 45 other young people mentally force their way through a very physically difficult experience.

Now the 46 entrants who made it through tryouts qualify for 10 weekends of aggressive training in ocean safety, first aid and rescue techniques. Only about one-third of those candidates will find employment with the Laguna Beach Marine Safety Department. It’s a grueling process and great training. It certainly opened my eyes to the level of excellence that our Marine Safety Department develops and has elevated my respect for one way that Laguna Beach manages safety and risk successfully.

People came from as far as Ventura and all over Southern California to participate in the tryouts here in Laguna Beach. Our town is extremely well-regarded for the marine safety program that has been developed here over the years. Dale Ghere gave me a little history on the development of the rookie program and his role in helping develop it. Ultimately, the goal is that a first year guard can safely manage his or her own cove with up to 50 saves on a challenging day.

Before last weekend, I did not understand the level of capability and effectiveness in our Marine Safety Department. Our local ocean lifeguards demand tremendous respect and are a great community investment. It’s extremely impressive to see professionals in our city managing risk and safety so well.

David Vanderveen is a Laguna Beach resident, husband, father and energy drink entrepreneur. His email is [email protected].



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