“Yep, do it every year,” says Liz Vander Clute, 22, a newly promoted crew chief beginning her sixth season on the stand. “Now summer has begun.”
The beach is a place of satisfying sameness. Clockwork cycles are at the core of the shore, a comforting repetition of all that has come before and will come again: the ceaseless metronome of waves, the daily pulse of tides, the seasonal arrival of shorebirds, T-shirt vendors, sea breezes and tan lines.
Sea turtles lay their eggs at the same time and place every year. Families claim the same houses during the same summer week — and eat the same food. Pizza from Grotto on the first night, crabs from Hooper’s on the last.
And the lifeguards pee in a cup on their first day back.
“I’ve been doing this for 18 summers, and I still get excited on Day One,” says Dave Haight, a crew leader up on Condo Row. “I’m a total creature of routine.”
After the drug test, the guards drive back to Beach Patrol headquarters to be issued their “reds,” a big duffel of swimsuits, sweatshirts, T-shirts and hats emblazed with the life-ring crest of the OCBP.
They get an umbrella and a summer’s supply of SPF 35 from Panama Jack, a longtime sponsor of the 200-person squad. They get a whistle, but most will buy a better one, the state-of-the-art Fox 40 pealess. They already own shades, but most will acquire a pair of VonZippers, the professional choice.
And they get their buoy — a stout, plastic floatation device that looks like an oversize red rugby ball with handles. The buoy is to the lifeguard what the M16 is to the Marine, his constant companion, the tool he needs to do the job, which for the lifeguard can amount to more than 600 surf rescues a year.
The O.C. Beach Patrol, which has a national reputation for effectiveness, pulls between 2,000 and 4,000 distressed swimmers from the Atlantic each summer. They treat about 100 suspected neck and back injuries (the most serious from ill-advised dives into shallow water) and return about 1,000 lost children to about 2,000 hysterical parents.
“We have a 100 percent return rate on lost individuals,” says Sgt. Timmy Uebel, 48, a contractor and 28-year Beach Patrol veteran. “On the Fourth of July, the same person may be lost two or three times.”
The returning guards know to look for the umbrellas with the straightest ribs, the buoys with the longest lines.
“I’ve had everything in here for years,” says Haight, as he sorts through his duffel. He’s drilled his umbrella with bolt holes and wing nuts to keep it mounted, because he’s seen a beach patron impaled by a wind-blown umbrella.