History of Ocean Lifeguards

Lifeguards at the Tijuana Rivermouth, 1950s. Photo: John Elwell.

Lifeguards at the Tijuana Rivermouth, 1950s. Photo: John Elwell.

As a 13-year veteran Ocean Lifeguard for the State of California and
the City of Imperial Beach, I know lifeguards play a critical role in
making sure that our beaches remain as safe as possible for the public.

Mike Martino is part of a group of lifeguards in San Diego County who
work to maintain the highest professional standands for lifeguard
agencies. Additionally, he has played an important role in documenting
the fascinating history of lifeguards in San Diego.

Serge Dedina: I was intrigued by the mention in your book, Lifeguards of San Diego County,
that the earliest reported lifeguards were in China in the early 18th
century. How did early pre-20th century lifeguards operate?

Mike Martino: The early life-saving groups were local. A group
called the Massachusetts Humane Society set up a lifeboat station in
1807. The men who worked the stations were local volunteers and their
rescue efforts dealt with foundering ships. Beach going for recreation
and swimming was still (on a societal level) a 100 years away.

Dempsey, South …Ramos photo

Lifeguard pioneer Dempsey Holder surfing in Imperial Beach. Photo: George Ramos

Serge Dedina: Who were some of the lifeguard pioneers in San Diego County?

Martino: Some local pioneers are George Freeth, Louis Chauvaud, Calvin “Spade” Burns, Charles Hardy and Emil Sigler just to name a few.

Dedina: We take it for granted that very few people drown on
public beaches in the U.S. anymore and especially in Southern
California, but a few cases of mass drownings in San Diego played a key
role in pushing public agencies to form professional lifeguard services.
What was the key tragedy in San Diego that caused a major perception in
understanding the need for lifeguards?

Martino: In San Diego, the major event occurred on May 5, 1918
at Ocean Beach. The surf was running somewhere in the 8-10 foot range,
and a massive rip current swept beach goers off their feet and out into
the swirling currents and surf. When it was all over, 60 plus people had
been rescued and 13 people had drowned.

12-67 small 1st… Gove photo

Imperial Beach Lifeguards surfing the Tijuana Sloughs

Dedina: When and where did professional lifeguard agencies evolve in San Diego County?

Martino: My best guess is that lifeguards were hired by the
local private bath houses somewhere around the early 1900s. Those
private businesses eventually petitioned San Diego City Council for
funds to support lifesaving operations, and then those private/public
relationships morphed into the government-sponsored services. The first
San Diego City Guards were policemen with aquatic skills.

Dedina: Emil Sigler was a legendary City of San Diego
Lifeguard. Who was he and why was so such a seminal figure in the
development of lifeguarding in San Diego?

Martino: I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Emil when I researched my book Lifeguards of San Diego County.
He worked as a seasonal lifeguard and commercial fisherman. Eventually,
he left lifeguarding to fish full-time. Emil was the consummate
waterman. He surfed, dove, fished and dedicated his life to the ocean.
He lived more than 100 years and lived the type of waterman’s life most
of us can only aspire to.

Dempsey1

Dempsey Holder fixing an old LIfeguard truck in Imperial Beach as John Elwell looks on. Photo: Courtesy John Elwell

Dedina: Why and when did you become a professional lifeguard?

Martino: I became a seasonal lifeguard in 1986, and I did it
because my best friend had been a state lifeguard and encouraged me to
join. Early on, I did it to earn money for college, and then eventually
pursued it as a career.

Dedina: Why do we need lifeguards to safeguard our beaches and water bodies?

Lifeguard jumping into action in Ocean City, M...

Lifeguard jumping into action in Ocean City, Maryland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Martino: Beach lifeguards—the people you see in the towers—are
the first line of defense against drowning. Good lifeguards intimately
know the stretches of beach and bodies of water they are assigned to
protect. They provide your family with valuable information and safety
advice, and then when things go bad, they come out and rescue you.

Dedina: Today, there are lifeguard agencies charged with
patrolling beaches from Oceanside to the Mexican border. What type of
physical skills and ocean knowledge does it take to become a lifeguard
and remain a professional lifeguard?

Lifeguard Tower in Ocean Beach, California

Lifeguard Tower in Ocean Beach, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Martino: Lifeguards have to be comfortable in their own mind.
Your stimulus has to be internal, not external; 95 percent of the time,
we’re just watching. When the time comes to perform, a lifeguard has to
be physically fit and calm under pressure. I tell my young staff all the
time, this is the closest job you can find to being a super hero.

Dedina: Are there estimates for the annual number of rescues
and assists carried out annually in San Diego County by lifeguard
agencies? What else to lifeguards do besides rescue swimmers in
distress?

English: View looking north-west across Moonli...

English: View looking north-west across Moonlight State Beach, Encinitas, California from behind the lifeguard station. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Martino: With all the agencies combined throughout the county,
10,000 rescues and assists is a good base number. Over that number and
it is a busy year. Under that number and it is a slower year. We also
reunite thousands of lost children with their parents, perform first
aid, patrol on rescue boats and perform cliff rescues. In the case where
I work, our permanent staff are state peace officers with full police
powers, so we make arrests too.

Dedina: What prompted the formation of the SDR Alert or San
Diego Regional Aquatic Lifesaving Emergency Response Task Force and what
is its purpose?

Martino: On August 25, 2003 a helicopter crashed off the shore
of Moonlight Beach. Lifeguards from throughout the county were used for
the search and recovery, and the logistics and resources needed far
exceeded what any one agency could provide. So after that event all the
lifeguard chiefs got together to form a group that pools our resources
and skills. At least once a year, all the agencies get together and
train for a mass casualty/rescue and recovery drill. Most recently, we
worked with the airport to train for a plane crashing in the water.

Southern Cal Junior Lifeguard Competition

Southern Cal Junior Lifeguard Competition

Dedina: What is it about lifeguarding that is so rewarding?

Martino: Lifeguarding is a career I have never regretted
choosing. There is always something to be done. Training to accomplish,
equipment to master, people to help. It’s a public service career I am
proud to be a part of.

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