The annual red tide returns later this month to swarm the beach and coastal waters of every waterside city in the OC.
This isn’t the occasional red tide, a natural algae bloom that, at its worst, poses a threat to fish, birds and marine mammals.
Rather, it’s the annual wave of junior lifeguards who hit the sand and surf – often in characteristic red lifeguard tees, shorts and swimsuits – as participants in sophisticated municipal programs that produce life-changing confidence in and around the ocean.
As local rituals go, this rite of passage ranks as one of the most significant for our 9- to 15-year-olds. After all, the joy of life here gets juiced on, in and near the ocean and bays that define us.
If we aren’t aware of the dangers posed by our coastal waters – and how to avoid and survive them – it’s impossible to fully embrace board and body surfing, sailing, kayaking, swimming, diving, snorkeling, Boogie and paddle boarding, Jet Skiing, and fishing.
That education is the core idea of the Junior Lifeguard curriculum, which includes how to spot and escape rip tides, dive under waves, swim longer distances, tread water longer, get back to shore, and CPR.
Each spring, every participant has to qualify by doing four-lap time trials in a pool that demonstrate his or her core swimming competency. For some, it’s the hardest, most emotional and most challenging part of the whole deal.
Junior Lifeguard programs have evolved into multi-dimensional experiences that teach participants physical fitness, discipline, respect for authority, the power and majesty of nature, how to follow directions, teamwork, social skills, and accomplishing ever more impressive goals – all wrapped in just plain fun and competition.
In Newport Beach, for example, the activities include a swim out and around the Balboa Pier, a 30-foot pier jump, the Monster Mile swim, and run-a-mile/swim-a-mile.
At the end of eight weeks (four hours a day, five days a week), the Newport lifeguards host a graduation night and present awards for performance and character.
“The Junior Lifeguard program is a lot like becoming a Scout,” says George “Skeeter” Leeper, a 33-year-old graduate of Junior Lifeguards, who now is the second in command of the Newport Beach program.
“It’s about familiarizing the kids with the ocean, with real lifeguards acting more like cool big brothers than like a teacher, a parent or a drill sergeant.
“We teach them to overcome their fears, and to be more confident. To follow the rules. We have fun. There are lots of breaks and messing around. We’re laid-back. But we are serious.”
Some learn the hard way the importance of locking their bikes, watching their backpacks and leaving valuables at home.
Kids who are late, inattentive or can’t follow directions get “punished” with pushups, or long runs in the sand. It works.
The Newport Beach program is one of the most expensive around: $695 for a resident, $805 for a non-resident if there is space. Participants get a towel, a backpack and a “uniform” of shorts and a T-shirt, this year specially designed by Quiksilver.
Thousands of Junior Lifeguard graduates have gone through the summer programs since they began in the OC in the early 1980s. Some went on to become seasonal, and then full-time lifeguards.
Some come back every year to pass on their wisdom to those just getting their feet wet. They fondly and wistfully speak years later about skills learned, friendships forged, confidence fortified, and lifeguard mentors who made indelible impressions.
Talk to a parent whose child has moved through the program and it’s clear it is much more, much bigger and more important than an alternative to summer day care.
“The Junior Lifeguard program teaches our kids to understand the ocean and the dangers it poses,” says a longtime local who has spent so much time in the water, his fingertips are permanently shriveled. “It taught our son to respect the water, survive in it, and ultimately, to fully enjoy it, and we’re forever grateful for the experience and the lessons learned.”
Be a lifeguard
For a better sense of the Junior Lifeguard program and its impact on our children, check out the awesome YouTube Webisodes: 2012 Newport Beach Junior Guards.