There’s a Baywatch movie coming out next year, starring Zac Efron, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and, of course, the TV show’s signature beach babe herself, Pamela Anderson. The hype around the new film got us thinking — what does it take to be an ocean lifeguard? Hot bods and tight suits are the first thing that come to mind, but we know there’s a bit more to it than that. So, we strapped on our Tevas, threw on our sunglasses, and trekked out to Folly Beach, where a group of red-clad hard bodies awaited us.
Stephen Fernandez, Charleston County Parks safety program assistant manager, is in charge of the 70 or so lifeguards employed to look after swimmers at IOP, Folly, and Kiawah’s Beachwalker park. Of the current training group, Fernandez determines that about seven of the participants are rookies, and the other 20 are returning guards. This is the nature of ocean lifeguarding — once you’re in the tribe, it’s hard to get out.
“You have to pass a run and swim test,” Fernandez says casually. We ask him to clarify and he says, “A 7:45 mile on the track, and 500 meters in the ocean in 10 minutes.” Which, for all y’all not currently hitting the track or the pool, is pretty damn speedy.
The test isn’t a big deal for the kids participating though — and we do mean kids. You have to be 16 years old to be an ocean lifeguard, and most guards are in high school or college. A lot of the participants swim on a high school or college team, or lifeguard at indoor pools during their off-season.
And while these guards know how to save lives, they also know how to let their guns out when the sun’s out.
“You’d be surprised how many phone numbers we get,” Luke Meier, a 25-year-old guard says. At 25 he’s one of the older lifeguards, which means the numbers aren’t rolling in like they used to. He shrugs, “I guess they think I’m old.” You’re not old Luke, you’re not.
As fun as girls writing phone numbers into the sand may be, most lifeguarding duties border on the tedious, with the guards on duty working 10-hour shifts. Kristen Miller, Beachwalker’s park manager, says that they encourage the guards to keep their minds busy and their eyes sharp, constantly scanning the water and running through rescue scenarios in their head. If that sounds like a lot of responsibility to put on a teenager, well, it is.
“It can be heavy for them,” admits Miller. Last year there were 12 rescues and 92 swim-assists — situations where a swimmer can still move on their own but still need some help. Thankfully, there haven’t been any deaths in Charleston-lifeguarded areas since the CCPRC took over in 1994. Most EMT calls, in fact, are for things that happen shoreside, like dehydration or — gasp — a heart attack. All of the guards are EMS trained, giving their title a whole new meaning: they really are guarding your life.
That is, of course, if you’re in a protected zone on the beach. We asked Fernandez if he notices more people flocking to the area around the lifeguard stands during summer’s busy beach days.
“People may come because of the guards,” says Fernandez of crowds surrounding guard stands. He notices more families with children in guarded areas, but he acknowledges that Folly and IOP Beach are so crowded during the summer anyway, it’s hard to decipher if more people come to the guarded areas for safety.
Charleston area lifeguards protect about 300 yards of beach on IOP and Beachwalker, and almost a mile of beach on Folly, where they have seven stands. The CCPRC lifeguards are United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) certified, which means they follow national safety protocols, but also means they get to compete in some pretty cool events. Is there a special contest where lifeguards from across the country face off against one another for bragging rights? Yes, yes there is.
And this year the USLA South Atlantic Region competition is taking place in Charleston for the first time since 1998. All of this is to say that over 200 lifeguards will storm Folly Beach on July 13-14, making the beach the safest it’s ever been.
Speaking of safety, we asked Fernandez and Miller what’s one tip they give swimmers, something that would prevent them from ever needing a lifeguard’s assistance. “Educate yourself before you go into the water,” says Miller. Fernandez adds that rip currents make up about 80 percent of the rescues he sees, which could be easily avoided if swimmers swam with the current, rather than against it. Or, ask a lifeguard what the conditions are before heading out, because you may just want to stay thigh deep on a super choppy day.
When you ask, make sure to punctuate your question with a carefully drawn phone number in the sand. They love that stuff.