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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Beaches, Sand and Money

Photo: Chris Patterson

As I watch shorebreak bombs explode at the Quiksilver Pro Francevia webcast, one thing that stands out besides the crazy hollow shorebreak is the brown large grain sand local beaches are made of.

The beaches and sandbars of southwest France, that result some of the world’s best beach breaks for surfing, are filled with large grain brown sand that flows out of the estuaries and rivers of the region.

Because much of the coastal zone along the southwestern coast of France remains free of development, with extensive barrier dunes still in place, the beaches aren’t subject to the same process of erosion as our beaches are (but there is extensive erosion in coastal cities there).

Imperial Beach, Sept. 25th,Photo: Eddie Kisfaludy/Wildcoast

In San Diego in contrast we have channelized and dammed our rivers and thrown up rocks, seawalls and structures along most of our coast.

In short we have done everything possible to obstruct natural sand flow and enhance the non-stop cycle of beach erosion.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the prescription for our own coastal erosion mess in Southern California was for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a historically inept and mismanaged agency, to build large jetties along the shoreline and even more destructive breakwaters.

Photo: Eddie Kisfaludy/Wildcoast

Later the Army Corps carried out massive dredge and fill projects to replace lost sand. In 1977 the Army Corps dumped massive amounts of toxic sediment and sludge from San Diego Bay on the beach in Imperial Beach.

Later the City of Imperial Beach and the Army Corps proposed the construction of a mile-long rock breakwater. Thanks to local surfers and the then fledgling Surfrider Foundation, we stopped that crazy scheme just as the Corps was ready to dump the rocks in the ocean.

More recently the Army Corps in partnership with the City of Imperial Beach, once again dredged the most toxic and  garbage ridden sites in San Diego Bay and dumped the garbage, rocks, and rebar in Imperial Beach along with toxic sediment.

This boy was almost impaled by this piece of metal left on the beach by the Army Corps of Engineers in Imperial Beach. Photo: Daren Johnson

A few years ago WiLDCOAST worked with Senator Tom Coburn and the Obama Administration a few years ago to stop a planed $50 million projectslated for Imperial Beach that proposed dredging an area near a sewage outfall pipe and WWI aerial bombing range. That project involved no public consultation, the involvement of secretive and highly paid sand lobbyists and PR films, millions spent on badly written environmental documents, and no effort to work with the public and or use clean sand.

So dredge and fill projects have largely been a mess in San Diego County. However, of all the projects that have been carried out those managed by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) have been managed in the most sensible way.

The 2001 regional beach replenishment effort by SANDAG resulted in the deposition of clean high quality large grain sand, extensive public consultation, and the involvement of locally-based project managers who work with local stakeholders—something the Army Corps of Engineers has no interest in doing.

On Thursday, SANDAG will finish up its sand replenishment operations for Imperial Beach after having placed more than 300,000 cubic yards of sand on the beach. The project is massive and has been well managed. For many surfers and beachgoers the current sand project has been a field course in coastal geomorphology and engineering.

After finishing in Imperial Beach this week, SANDAG moves the project to Oceanside, Moonlight Beach, Cardiff State Beach, Batiquitos, and North and South Carlsbad. In total SANDAG will place more than 1.4 million cubic yards of sand on county beaches.

Photo Eddie Kisfaludy/Wildcoast

In Imperial Beach the new sand has temporarily wiped out rideable surf over much of the beach (note to surfers—don’t waste your time coming down to IB—the entire beach is a closed out shorebreak), but I expect the sand to level out over the next few months.

As the project moves to Oceanside and the rest of North County, it will be critical for surfers and other stakeholders to monitor the project and evaluate its impacts.

As a surfer, coastal conservationist, and dedicated beachgoer, I know that having a local agency like SANDAG carry out these projects is a million times more preferable to having ecological and economic coastal disasters foisted upon us by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Photo: Chris Patterson

A Real Surfer

East County surfer riding a wave to the top

(Note–Vito is a great kid–and I’ve had the pleasure surfing with him and his brother. He competes in the Dempsey Holder Surf Contest and I’ve surfed with him in IB with my groms and at La Jolla Shores–this is from the San Diego Union-Tribune)

By Michael Gehlken

Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 9:58 a.m.

Standout Granite Hills High surfer Vito Roccoforte at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas.  

Robby TuttleStandout Granite Hills High surfer Vito Roccoforte at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas

EL CAJON — Vito Roccoforte carries a photo album with him at all times, a series of snapshots stored in a place no wave could ever wash away.

The pictures are arranged in order of personal significance, and there is one image Roccoforte cherishes above the rest.

Roccoforte, a senior at Granite Hills High, is a surfing purist whose most prized memories of the sport are as perfectly pristine as the water he rides.

He has been humbled by accolades and exposure — last month, the 17-year-old Lakeside resident was spotlighted in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” section, reserved for the country’s top amateur athletes — but none of those honors can overtake the love of surfing with good company as Roccoforte’s true source of passion in the sport.

“I always have a whole bunch of pictures in my head of super perfect days,” Roccoforte said. “In one, I just dropped in, and I watched the whole wave pitch over me, and then I could see just my buddies down the barrel looking at me. Just the picture of that on a nice glassy day. The water is clear. Friends. Sunshine. Just looking down the wave.”

This season, Roccoforte has been looking at success.

In October, Roccoforte earned a trophy, new surfboard and clothes for winning the junior men’s division at the Wildcoast Dempsey Holder Ocean Festival and Surf Contest in Imperial Beach. Currently, he is ranked first in the longboard and third in shortboard in the Division IV Scholastic Sports Series.

This prolific wave seems to have risen so high so early for Roccoforte, who began surfing on his 15th birthday.

Granite Hills coach Robby Tuttle said if anyone can handle the ride, it is Roccoforte, whom he calls “the most talented and accomplished surfer” in the surf program’s nine-year history.

At the end of last season, Tuttle and surfing assistants Tim Wright and Dave Sands gave Roccoforte the ultimate honor with the first-annual Keith Michael Memorial Award.

Michael, a popular, energetic teacher on campus, started the surf club. Months after an inspiring 2007 graduation speech, he lost his battle to melanoma.

“It’s really the character award, but it’s a little more meaningful because Keith was such a unique, helping soul, so we thought we’d give that first one away, and it was pretty unanimous,” Tuttle said. “We’ve never seen one like him, or at least I haven’t in my seven years here.

“He’s always smiling, and he’s always the first person to offer someone help or to offer a wave. He always says, ‘Hey Coach, do you want that one?’ Vito will always offer, which is just rare … Just the sharing. You can’t beat that.”

Roccoforte has immersed himself in the sport in hopes of picking up a sponsor and earning a career in the industry. He estimates he has watched well more than 100 surfing videos with his father and younger brother, Michael, also a member of the surf team. He is a sales associate at Hanger 94, a surf shop in La Mesa, with co-workers who are “like family.”

He has considered one day returning to Granite Hills as a teacher and assisting with the surf club.

“I guess that saying, ‘Only a surfer knows the feeling,’ is true because (surfing) makes you keep wanting to go back out there,” Roccoforte said. “I keep doing it only because it’s fun … Whenever I hang out with my friends, it’s always fun.”

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