By Patricia B. Dwyer
All photos courtesy of the San Diego City Lifeguards
From mass drownings to cliff rescues to retro banana hammocks, stories of San Diego lifeguards weave a rich, 100-year history of lifesaving. Given the lack of written record, however, the accounts are as patchy as the fading photographs these salty sentinels left behind.
Gleaned from precisely one bajillion conversations with various higher-ups in the lifesaving trade, this timeline spans from the early 1900s, when lifeguarding was the job of only a couple brave men, to now, when nearly 100 fulltime guards (many of whom have appeared on The Weather Channel’s reality TV show, Lifeguard) watch the local beaches.
Sunday, May 5, 1918
While the true origin of the San Diego lifeguard is tough to pin down, newspaper clippings describe the police department as having paid certain people to pull other people out of the surf since 1906. The city got formally involved with lifeguarding after an incident on May 5, 1918, when a group of 11 active World War I soldiers and two civilians drowned in Ocean Beach. A 10-foot north swell was building, and, with no jetties protecting Mission Beach or Ocean Beach yet, 70 beachgoers were swept into the pounding surf. Nearly 60 people were saved; 13 died. This event spurred the staffing of city-employed lifeguards in San Diego, starting a nasty trend that continues today:it takes a tragedy for lifeguards to get more funding.
These boys (above) are called the “Old Mission Beach Crew,” because John Spreckels had already built the beginnings of Belmont Park and a new station at Santa Clara Place that would become the home of the “New Mission Beach Crew.” Lifeguards at the time dawned woolen one-pieces that looked like itchy wrestling uniforms and tore easily. Lifeguarding wasn’t a career for these men, but rather a part-time gig for strong swimmers who typically stuck around for four or five years. Even some of the fellas regarded as “legends” today were in the force for only a few years.
These guys were the cream of the lifeguard crop in their day. But despite saving lives fulltime, they didn’t receive much recognition for their awesomeness. The salary for lifeguards in the 1920s: $115 per month. Emil Sigler (pictured at left), who lost an eye as a toddler, was one of the first surfers in California to ride a 14-foot Koa wood board from Hawaii. He died in 2012 at the age of 101. Ed Stotler (center) went on to become a police officer (lifeguards at the time were part of the police department) and a detective. Bill Rumsey (right) was the only lifeguard to earn the title of “captain” of the now-defunct San Diego County lifeguards. He went on to have a successful career as a physician.
Here’s Emil Sigler (pictured at right) with a comrade at the “New Mission Beach” station, which was located near the site of what is now Wave House, a few yards from today’s lifeguard station at Mission Beach. Uniforms back then weren’t exactly uniform, so lifeguards chose between safari-style getups with helmets and skin-tight one-pieces.
In an uncelebrated journey, lifeguards Emil Sigler (left) and Bill Rumsey rowed hundreds of miles from Mission Beach to Huntington Beach to the Catalina Islands, and then back to Mission Beach. This picture was taken at the completion of their journey. The rowboat they traveled in was dory, a vessel lifeguards used for rescues until the 1960s. Paying homage to Bill and Emil’s excellent adventure, modern-day guards Rick Strobel and Darrell Esparza retraced the storied journey 73 years later, in 2007. The lifeguard tower pictured here was called a “bird cage,” and was used until the 1970s, when people finally figured out skin cancer is a thing.
This photo shows a young Captain Chuck Hardy, shedding light on the Stella Maris, a boat that washed ashore during a winter storm. By the 1930s, the full-time force of lifeguards consisted of five men with a Model T, a motorcycle with a sidebar… and probably two or three more flashlights.
The boys were given a little breathing room in the late 1940s, when canvas shorts with brass clips were introduced. Sitting Indian-style still wasn’t really an option (no lining equals horrible view). Floatation devices were made of metal at the time, making them perfect for further injuring the people they were intended to help rescue.
When Mission Bay was dredged to create a recreational park, lifeguards expanded their watch to the bay by launching the Harbor Patrol.
Lifeguard Dick Jackson shows off his rescue board, the only type of board on the market at the time. Often made of redwood, these boards weighed 100 pounds and were likely handmade in a garage. They didn’t have stabilizing fins and hurt when they hit lifeguards (or the people they saved) in the head.
Late 1940s to early 1950s
Before Chuck Hardy (who remained on the force until the day he died in 1968) was named San Diego’s first lifeguard captain, all lifeguards were basically equal in rank. The arches in the background of the photo stand above the entrance to Belmont Park and the “Plunge” swimming pool constructed in 1925.
San Diego’s junior lifeguard program was born during World War II , when the regular guards were shipped off to war. Training with the junior guards became a popular summer camp alternative for the 18-and-under set in the mid-1950s.
San Diego’s rugged coastline necessitates cliff rescues, which, in the 1950s and ’60s, lifeguards executed from the back of a pick-up truck with a crane-like apparatus, a hand crank and two dudes guiding support ropes from beneath. Yikes!
Vern Fleet (left) and Bob Shea pose with their diving equipment at Santa Clara Point, Mission Bay, shortly after the advent of the San Diego lifeguard dive team. Fleet and Shea were experienced skin divers, meaning they held their breath during dives.
Here’s a look at the equipment lifeguards had in tow in the 1960s. Yep, that’s a stretcher made with chicken wire. Like modern-day surfboards, rescue boards at the time were comprised of fiberglass and foam, as opposed to the 100 pounds of wood that made them float in the 1940s. Swim fins weren’t used in rescues until after World War II , when lifeguards in the war were trained to be frogmen, the precursor to Navy SEALs. Prior to this time, lifeguards swam into powerful currents unaided. Today’s lifeguards utilize about twice the amount of equipment pictured here.
Carol Tyler was the first female lifeguard in San Diego. One might think her arrival would have opened the floodgates for ocean loving women everywhere, but the force remained male-dominated until Baywatch came out. Women still make up less than half the force today — and likely deal with Baywatch jokes way too often.
With all that feathered hair, it’s hard to pick them out of the lineup, but there is a woman or two in this groovy 1974 photo.
In the late 1970s, when someone got caught in the swift current of a river, someone else got the genius and unprecedented idea to call the lifeguards for assistance. During one such incident, a lifeguard with a rope tied around his waist got sucked underwater during a rescue, which spurred the creation of a Swift Water Rescue unit within the San Diego Lifeguards. Eight guards were sent to the Colorado River and Laguna Dam to train, ultimately developing protocol that would shape river rescue practices nationwide.
For a while, the role of Mission Bay lifeguards skewed away from rescue towards law enforcement. Eventually, Harbor Patrol separated from the rest of the lifeguards and stopped requiring its staff to have such strong swimming and water-rescue skills. In the 1990s, Harbor Patrol became the Boating Safety Unit and maintained their enforcement duties, but also made sure their guards had rescuing skills, too.
Most of today’s lifeguards would say that the force remains understaffed and underfunded. At its highest level of staffing, the department has more than 200 seasonal guards (for the summer months), 20 supervisors and 70 full-time guards. Although certain administrative positions were recently reinstated after being cut for budgetary purposes, 15 percent of the force will retire within five years, leaving the future of the San Diego Lifeguards guards uncertain.
San Diego lifeguards’ Reality TV appearances
Lifeguard! Southern California
Weather Channel, 2012-2013
Ocean Force: San Diego
Beach Patrol San Diego