By Christy Scannell
I?t was a busy day at Ventura Cove in Mission Bay. Lifeguard Katherine Jackson was in her first month on the job, watching over about 50 swimmers.
"Everything looked right, but I just had this feeling that something wasn't," she says.
Grabbing her rescue equipment, Jackson ran to the water's edge, where she saw a pair of eyes staring up at her. No one had noticed the little girl completely submerged beyond the basin's drop-off point.
"I've had standing ovations for big rescues but nothing stands out in my mind more than that little girl and those big eyes," she says. "I'll never forget how she was gasping for air. One of my first weeks on the bay could have been my first drowning."
That rescue was 13 years ago. Today, Jackson, a sergeant with the City of San Diego Lifeguard Service, teaches prospective lifeguards just how crucial mental preparation is to their jobs.
"You really need to be hyperaware of everything around you," she says. The physical requirements are just as demanding. An Air Force veteran who survived basic training, Jackson says there is nothing more strenuous than the 80-hour San Diego Regional Lifeguard Academy, which is offered three times a year. From swimming 500-meter courses in freezing water to jumping off piers, candidates are tested and re-tested to make sure they have what it takes to save lives. About 30 percent drop out of every class because they can't keep up.
"These people have to be athletes," says Nick Lerma, a lifeguard lieutenant overseeing the service's central district. "There's not always a supervisor to tell you what to do, so we have to have people who can think independently and make fast decisions. They can't wince when there is disaster in front of them."
The department employs 80 fulltime lifeguards and typically hires an additional 200 as seasonal help to cover an area stretching from Ocean Beach north to Black's Beach. San Diego lifeguards perform a range of duties year-round, from cliff and rip current rescues to underwater search and recovery.
"There's no off-season," Lerma says. "In fact, winter tends to be more critical because of large surf, inclement weather and colder water."
Those conditions were exactly what lifeguard sargeant Jon Vipond and three other department responders faced in November 2009, when a 35-foot fishing vessel overturned in the Mission Bay channel, its motionless propellers wrapped in fishing line. Twenty-foot waves crashed across the stranded boat, flipping it end over end and plunging its six passengers and their equipment into the water.
Two lifeguards were on the scene in minutes via motorboat. Vipond drove from his Ocean Beach station, waded across the San Diego River and jumped into the channel to join the rescue.
"The problem was the outgoing tide was driving everything into the waves and back into the impact zone," Vipond says. "It was like a treadmill you're stuck on."
The lifeguards soon had the situation under control, with only minor injuries to the victims. They received medals of valor for their work from the United States Lifesaving Association and the City of San Diego Fire Rescue Department.
Full-timers encourage each other to maintain peak physiques, committing to vigorous regimens of swimming, running and weightlifting that ensure stamina and dexterity. To remain employed, each must pass two timed 500-meter swims per year.
"Your level of physical fitness determines whether you survive," Lerma says.
Of the approximately 6,000 rescues San Diego lifeguards make each year, some of them-such as the 2009 channel incident-are so awe-inspiring they've earned the department national honors and worldwide speaking engagements. Many are less dramatic, though lifeguards approach every situation with the same intensity.
"What I try to teach the younger people is you have to treat them all as a potential major emergency," Strobel says. "When you see someone struggling, you never know if that person has an underlying medical problem that a little exertion could trigger into something really bad, really fast."
With nearly $1 million in staffing cuts for the 2010-11 fiscal year, and more cuts expected for 2011-12, San Diego's lifeguards are scrambling to maintain beach safety standards. Many area beaches now have empty lookout chairs, and there are fewer lifeguards to respond to emergencies.
For Jackson, it all goes back to that girl at Ventura Cove, and what might have been.
"With no eyes on the water, people will drown," she says. "We all have to be prepared to suffer the consequences."