There are 26 rookies in this training class. Another two dozen will fill a second course next month. All between 18 and 23, they start at $13 an hour, bumping to $14 when they clear a probationary period. Returning lifeguards earn an average of $15 and can clear $10,000 for the season.
The first official lifeguard shift won’t start until 10 a.m. on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. That leaves a few day of surfside training to break in, and wear out, the rookies.
They are already top physical specimens, having outswum and outrun more than 100 applicants for the job at two grueling beach tryouts last fall.
But they still have to master semaphore, the antique language of naval flag signals. They have to learn to spot the one flailing distressed swimmer amid the dozens of flailing safe ones. (Lifeguards are blatant profilers. If you are tanless, obviously out of shape, wearing street clothes or otherwise seem unfamiliar with ocean swimming, they will watch you like a hawk when you enter the water).
They will practice digging a toddler from a collapsed sand hole and stabilizing a broken neck in a pounding surf. They will learn to never, never turn their back on the ocean.
“Face east!” an instructor screams at a trainee who turns sidewise for a moment to answer a question from someone behind her. By the end of the first day, they walk backward and run backward, eyes locked on the waves.
“By the end of this week, they will never be able to relax on the beach again,” says Lt. Ward Kovacs, 50, a Lutheran pastor in his off time. Behind him, three rookies practice dragging 300-pound timber-frame lifeguard stands up the beach, still having “Face east!” screamed at them. “I can’t even walk by a puddle and not scan it.”
The “beans,” as recruits have been known since they were issued bright green rookie uniforms, will get on-the-job training and be on probation until they pass a series of competency tests. But by Monday, they’ll be in stands of their own, 200 yards from the next guard.
“We’ve had people have to do CPR on their first day,” says Jaime Falcon, 39, an economics professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and, now, the patrol sergeant in charge of rookie training. “They have to be ready.”
Falcon replicates as much of the lifeguard’s harrowing grind as he can. They run for miles in soft sand, swim the big surf until they crawl out, gasping, then run some more. The instructors are gleeful on the second day of training, when a tropical depression offshore kicks up a battering five-foot surf. No one is in the water except the guards.
“Get out there! They’re dying!” shouts Crew Chief Kelly McGrath, 26, as a group of recruits plunges into the heaving Atlantic for the fourth time. The five “drowning” swimmers are faking it, but the rip current they are in is real. One recruit, struggling to finish a 500-meter swim, has to be helped in by Uebel, who is patrolling on a surfboard.