Do you have what it takes to be a California lifeguard?

Huntington Beach lifeguard candidates gather for the first of three swimming exercises. Photo credit: Saul Gonzalez

On a bracingly cold morning in Huntington Beach, a big group of teenagers and 20-somethings gathered outside of the city’s main lifeguard station.  

They were here to participate in the city’s annual lifeguard tryouts, one of many held up and down the California coast this time of year in preparation for the summer beach season.

New lifeguards hired by Huntington Beach must be at least 17 years old when they begin the job. They’ll earn a starting salary of $18.65 an hour, with a five percent increase if they pass a bilingual exam.

The lifeguard candidates were led into the station’s hanger-like workspace and asked to sit on the floor for a short briefing.

Huntington Beach lifeguard coordinator Michael Eich began by reviewing the morning’s weather conditions: Winds were strong and the surf rough, with water temperatures hovering around 50 degrees.

The conditions were terrible if you were seeking a warm and relaxing day at the beach, but great if you wanted to see if candidates had what it takes to be lifeguards.

“As a lifeguard, you do not get to choose the environment that you may have to go into,” Eich told the applicants in a bellowing voice. “So these kind of conditions will tell us who is physically ready to be a lifeguard.”

Huntington beach lifeguard coordinator Michael Eich addresses lifeguard candidates about rough ocean conditions during the day of the tryouts. “This is not a swim lesson. If you haven’t experienced conditions like this before and say to yourself ‘I’m not ready,’ that’s alright.” 
Photo credit: Saul Gonzalez

After reviewing conditions, Eich told the candidates they’d be swimming in three open water exercises that day, all closely monitored by professional lifeguards on the beach and in the water.

After the briefing, each was issued a purple swim cap and had a number written on both of their shoulders for identification in and out of the water.

The scene had the feel of a military boot camp. Huntington Beach Marine Safety Officer Claude Panis said that was on purpose because of the stakes involved in lifeguarding and the reputation of Huntington Beach in the lifeguarding world.

The Orange County community, also known as Surf City, established its lifeguard service in 1918. Huntington Beach was also one of the first cities to adapt programs first used by the military to monitor the beach and save lives.

“We’re a paramilitary organization, so there is a a lot of military influence here,” said Pannis.

“This is work and people need to take this seriously. They are not out there frolicking in the waves or bodysurfing. They’re going to be sitting in a tower and in charge of people’s lives.”  

After candidates are briefed on the swimming qualification exercises, they stand in line so numbers can be written in waterproof ink on their shoulders for identification.
Photo credit: Saul Gonzalez

Lifeguard candidate Kevin Asis said that sense of seriousness and purpose made him want the job.

“It’s about learning discipline,” he said. “And really it’s one of the most honorable things you can do. It’s literally about life-saving.”

Asis, who’s also a water polo player, said he’d been training for weeks to prepare for this morning’s tryouts and hoped all the work would pay off.

“I’m just looking to start strong,” he said. “I think the first swim is really where it’s going to matter because that’s really going to be a long, cold swim.”

The wind kicked up as the candidates walked across the wide cold beach to where they’d start their first test of the day, a thousand-yard swim around Huntington Beach’s massive pier.

Using a stick, Sean Richardson, who’s volunteered at lifeguard tryouts since he was a child, drew a long furrow in the sand that would be used as the starting line for the first swim.

Volunteer Sean Richardson draws the starting line in the sand for the first swim exercise of the day as spectators gather on Huntington Beach’s pier. “Those who don’t swim in the ocean pretty regularly can have a hard time and won’t finish” said Richardson. 
Photo credit: Saul Gonzalez

Richardson said the swimmers who maintain strong and consistent strokes, while being aware of waves and currents  would do well in the tryouts.

“It’s people who aren’t paying attention to the water environment that falter,” said Richardson.

Richardson said it’s common for even strong athletes who spend most of their time in a swimming pool to fare poorly in the open-water environment because the of ocean chop, waves and currents.

“I’ve seen Olympic swimmers fail,” said Richardson. “It’s a totally different environment. It’s dangerous.”

Lifeguard candidates deal with the morning chill as they wait for the start of the first swim of the day.
Photo: Saul Gonzalez

After the candidates gathered in a long row on the beach, the swim began with the bang of a starter’s pistol.

The pack of people sprinted to the water, dove in and quickly became indistinguishable as they swam through the high surf.

It soon became clear just how rough conditions were as some candidates turned back to the beach and called it quits, disqualifying them from further participation.

Lifeguard candidates race to the water in a  1,000 yard swim around the Huntington Beach Pier. Because conditions are rough and the water cold, some applicants come back to the beach almost immediately and are disqualified from further participation.
Photo credit: Saul Gonzalez

About fifteen-minutes later, those who finished the entire course began to emerge from the water,first one or two at a time and then in bigger groups.

Many were cheered on by family and friends who had come to show support.

As they crossed the finish line, their timings were recorded by lifeguards.

As she worked to catch her breath, Breena Thomas reflected on the swim.

“It was, it was rough,” she said. “I think just getting over the shock of how cold it was, but it was good.”

Thomas was confident that she would do well in the two remaining swims, the last of which also involved a ??? yard run on the beach before crossing the finish line.

Lifeguard candidates emerge from the water. Many applicants have grown up in coastal communities and have spent their lives swimming or surfing in the Pacific.
Photo credit: Saul Gonzalez

Many of the lifeguard candidates had the advantage of living in wealthier coastal communities and had grown up swimming and surfing in the ocean.

But not Luis Pacheco, who was raised and lives in Compton. He was also one of the few people of color trying out for a lifeguard position.

“I come from a tough neighborhood and everybody said I couldn’t do it,” reflected Pacheco after the third and last swim of the day. “Now I am proving everybody wrong.”

Pacheco also said how much he appreciated the support of his parents and his girlfriend who came to cheer him on.

Out of the 81 people who tried out, 40 passed the physical tests and were invited back for interviews the next day. Out of those candidates, Huntington Beach says it will offer two dozen applicants lifeguard jobs.

After weeks of training in rescue techniques and first aid, they’ll report for duty in June, just in time for the summer beach season.

Those who are picked to be lifeguards will often return to the job summer after summer. Many will also go on to careers in public safety and park and recreation work. “When people work together to save lives, they become close and build relationships that last for the rest of their lives, says Huntington Beach Marine Safety Officer Claude Panis.  Photo credit: Saul Gonzalez.



Saul Gonzalez