Lifeguard instincts remain intact
By TERRY TOMALIN
Published May 4, 2007
Floating in the middle of San Francisco Bay on a cool, autumn morning, I began to wonder if trying to swim from the island prison of Alcatraz had really been a good idea.
It was the second day of my honeymoon, and somehow, I had convinced my bride to let me participate in the legendary "Sharkfest" 1 1/2-mile swim.
I had always considered myself a strong swimmer. A Thanksgiving tradition for my lifeguard buddies and I was a swim across Tampa Bay. I had even once completed a 12 1/2-mile swim around Key West.
But still, there I was, cold and cramping, looking for seals and sharks, imagining how angry my wife would be if I drowned before I had the chance to take her out to at least one nice dinner.
I should have known better. I worked as a lifeguard on Clearwater Beach for several years and knew most people involved in rescues considered themselves "strong" swimmers.
I worked the Saturday shift to swim, stay in shape and listen to the philosophical musings of my friend, Joe Lain, the surfing sage from Roger Mills County, Okla.
An English teacher by trade, Lain had traded in his school books to sail the Caribbean. Eventually, like so many others, he ended up in Clearwater, lured by the sun, sand and clear blue waters.
Like many transplants, Lain adapted to his new surroundings and soon became a master of that critical zone between the buoys and beach. As water safety supervisor for the city of Clearwater, Lain quickly learned the Gulf of Mexico was a fickle mistress.
As a lifeguard, you realize things can look postcard perfect but conditions can change in an instant, when a summer squall rolls and turns the tranquil sea into a teeming tempest.
"That is why we plan for the worst and hope for the best," Lain told me day after day.
The measure of good lifeguards, he explained, was not how many successful rescues they completed, but how many rescue situations they foresaw and prevented.
After a few weeks on the job, I, too, learned to spot potential problems ... groups of young boys trying to see who could swim the farthest, children on rafts with no parents in sight and, of course, the self-professed "strong swimmers," who were oblivious to wind, current and tide.
Everybody has limits, even lifeguards and Navy SEALS. The key to water survival is to know your limitations. It is a lifeguard's job to know the limitations of those they are charged to protect and act accordingly.
Still, a decade after I stopped manning my tower, I still keep an eye out for others whenever I am around the water. I am not alone. The motto of the United States Lifesaving Association, the national agency that has led the charge to codify water safety standards and training, is "Lifeguards for Life."
But just because you have never worn the red trunks or carried a rescue can doesn't let you off the hook. Florida has one of the highest drowning rates in the United States, and when it comes to children between the ages of 1 and 4, we lead the nation.
So as you head out this summer to enjoy our state's great beaches, springs and water parks, remember to heed the surfing sage's advice: "Plan for the worst and hope for the best."
As for Alcatraz ... I remembered my training, kept my cool and massaged the cramp out of my calf. My wife got her dinner, and I promised I'd never try something so foolhardy again, at least until our second honeymoon.
To take the "Water Watcher Pledge" and learn more about drowning prevention, go to www.doh.state.fl.us. For water safety tips from the nation's top lifeguards, go to www.usla.org.