50 years of bringing safety to the beach

The sounds of waves crashing and traffic rushing by on Pacific Coast Highway were no match for Michael Eich's booming voice.

The new coordinator of the Huntington Beach City Junior Lifeguards spoke in front of about 600 guards and their parents Monday morning to kick off the 50th year of the program.

Eich has 925 students in the program this summer, some from as far away as Japan, Switzerland and Spain, he said.

Marc Gehlke, 17, of Huntington Beach, is starting his seventh year with the guards, with hopes of one day becoming a lifeguard.

"It teaches kids about ocean safety," he said. "It's also a good place to make friends and it gives you a good workout. The instructors are awesome too."

He addressed new and returning guards on the damp sand between the Junior Lifeguards headquarters and Tower Five. As a moderate drizzle fell, he told them that the program would focus on learning about the environment and beach safety.

"It's not a boot camp and we're not a day-care center," Eich said. "We are educationally based. We have a set eight-week curriculum."

Monday wasn't just the program's half-century mark in Huntington Beach. It also was the start of an era without longtime coordinator Dave Simcox, who retired in February after a 49-year involvement with the program.

Eich, who was Simcox's assistant coordinator for about 32 years, knows this session will be different without him.

"[Simcox] would do one thing and I would do another, and by the end, we would just meet briefly and we both knew what the other one was going to do," Eich said. "With [Simcox] gone, now I have to do this but now I have to train the other guys. That part's difficult and I'm going to miss him dearly."

Eich paused long enough in his pep talk to the students to allow $28,599 that was raised during January's Surf's Up for Down Syndrome event to be donated to the Friends of the Huntington Beach City Junior Lifeguards and to Team Up for Down Syndrome.

The Surf's Up event involved volunteers from the Junior Lifeguards teaching those with Down syndrome how to surf.

Friends of the Junior Lifeguards President Bill Hyink and Team Up event coordinator Jennifer Johns accepted the large replica check on behalf of their respective organizations.

"We were impressed. I thought the event was great and it raised quite a bit of money," Johns said. "We definitely grew from last year and it made an impact on all the kids who were involved."

Also in attendance was surfing legend Peter Townend, who was a junior guard in his native Australia.

"Southern California is known for its beach culture and I think it's super important that kids get the discipline when joining a program like this," he said. "A lot of your future lifeguards will come out of this program."

According to Eich, more than 70% of the lifeguards in the city's towers and 80% of his instructors have come from Huntington's program.

"The program feeds itself and feeds back into the city," he said.

Eich said the junior guard program isn't meant to turn every student into a lifeguard. Though it gives students an avenue to become a professional guard, he believes education about beach safety and the environment is paramount.

"I told my daughter to spend three years minimum in the program," he said. "I wanted to know when she goes down with her friends to the beach that she knows what rip currents are, what the big surf is like and how to get out of it. You as a parent can feel safe when you reach the teenage years and they can do that."

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