By Justin Swanson, Special to the Independent
This past weekend, a stroll along Main Beach’s boardwalk felt like wading through humanity. Peppered throughout the assembly of multi-colored umbrellas were patches of sand waiting to be occupied. As children raced with abandon towing sloshing buckets of water and parents relaxed in the waning days of summer, others on the beach coiled in anticipation of the unexpected.
“Your job as a lifeguard is to be able to predict human behavior,” reflects Mitch Ridder, a Laguna Beach resident and seasonal lifeguard. “Work is like playing a game of chess; you have to stay one step ahead,” he explains, noting that deploying his greatest asset, adeptly observing crowds, is nearly an anthropological survey in behavioral trends aimed at averting emergencies.
This past weekend, the beaches of Laguna were swarmed as the hot weather inland incited an influx of water-loving bodies and sunbathers. The seaside populace rose to 80,000 over the course of two days. As was to be expected, lifeguards had their hands full making 450 rescues and assisting in 50 medical aids over the two days, combined.
“Obviously some days can be slow, and we have to [stave off] boredom, but this weekend our lifeguards were wet all day,” says Marine Safety Officer Josh Bynum, implying the workload was as heavy as it ever is.
Marine Safety Captain Tom Trager says that this coming weekend will see a south swell, which picked up Thursday, with the occasional six foot set on Friday and Saturday, with slow drop in surf conditions Sunday. “The crowds were gigantic last weekend,” Trager reflects, “We’re expecting the same for this weekend.”
Fortunately, the department had the benefit of foresight. The preceding Tuesday, Aug. 7, alone saw about 150 rescues and 14 medical aids as crowds flocked to Laguna’s coastline on account of optimal swell conditions. A knowing prediction was made for the weekend based on a confluence of factors putting on-duty lifeguards on full alert.
“The crowds themselves don’t necessarily dictate any change to how we do our job,” Bynum says. “You can have a full beach but if the water’s 50 degrees it’s not as bad [or difficult].” When certain factors come together, those being favorable surf conditions, comfortable water temperatures, and heat on the sand, that provides an incentive for beachgoers to brave the water and consequently enter compromising situations, he said. All of those factors combined together in Laguna last weekend.
For comparison’s sake, both Bynum and Ridder mention July 4 and Labor Day as exceedingly busy beach days for lifeguards, though circumstances like last weekend proved just as difficult to manage.
While the number of rescues needed does appear to be high, Bynum points out the department anticipated the difficulty of the task ahead. Besides the years of experience of present guards, the department draws on advances such as swell and weather forecasts that allow guards to “prepare, be mentally ready, and adjust easily.”
“It is part of the job to be flexible and adjust to whatever the conditions may be,” Ridder punctuates, leading to one of the job’s main tenants, which remains the same on any given day: accident and emergency prevention.
Bynum reported 6,000 “prevents” made over the weekend, instances of lifeguards actively contacting, warning, and educating beach visitors. This is where anticipation of human behavior becomes part of the job description along with months of intensive training about the precipitous dangers of the environment.
Part of that training has to do with the unique geology of Laguna’s coast, which creates its coves and tide pools as well as the opportunity for the widest variety of recreational water activities. That in turn requires an understanding of the ocean and an alertness and responsiveness by lifeguards that is anything but a typical day at the beach.