How it Works: Lifeguarding

Okay, you try looking out into the glaring sun for hours on end while keeping track of three or four hundred people, and then tell us that being a lifeguard is a cushy job. Go ahead – just try it.
Actually, if you’re to believe Reid Turner, one of around two-dozen Edgartown lifeguards, the toughest part of being a lifeguard is jumping into the water on those chilly mornings in early summer. But we don’t entirely believe him, because among other things, Reid loves to surf in Maine. In the winter.
So what’s the hardest part of being a lifeguard? That depends on where you guard. A lifeguard at a pool deals with an entirely different set of circumstances than someone guarding a coastal beach, such as South Beach at Katama. And for that matter, working at Katama is quite different from working at a more sheltered location such as State Beach on Nantucket Sound, or even another open ocean beach that might have a different sort of breaking wave. But for the sake of discussion, let’s talk about Katama.
Because the bottom drops off quickly along the south side of the Vineyard, the waves break close to the shore. “Generally swimmers don’t go out too far,” says Turner, “so we don’t run into too many situations where we have to swim way out to save someone from drowning. Most of the problems we have come from swimmers being crashed into the shore. It’s not uncommon to have seven-foot waves, and a cubic foot of water weighs sixty-seven pounds – you do the math.”
To further complicate matters, a phenomenon in the current called clapotis occasionally turns the surf around and waves break away from the shore. In 1997 waves measuring two to three feet broke back out to sea.
And then there are those pesky sharks. (Actually, there has never been a recorded shark attack on the Vineyard, other than one time when a fisherman was standing up to his waist reeling in a fish which turned out to be a shark and – surprise – it bit him in the leg.) Occasionally a seal will pop up next to a swimmer, but most of the unwanted intruders are jellyfish. Lion’s manes, and sometimes even Portuguese men-of-war, will occasionally appear and can deliver a nasty sting. It’s also not a good idea to swim into a school of bluefish.
So what exactly does a lifeguard do?
According to Kris Hauk, the head of the Edgartown crew, his lifeguards have three principal responsibilities:
First, keep the beach and water safe from hazards. Make sure the sand is free of glass and that there are no logs in the water.
Second, be ready to respond to an emergency. All his guards must have Red Cross certification and be excellent swimmers.
Finally lifeguards must look professional and make people feel safe. And try not to lose it when the umpteenth person yells, “Hey, Baywatch.”
Come to think of it, that may be the toughest part of all.