A Full, Active Life for a Frugal Man on the Go

Times Staff Writer

Can true happiness be found on a modest budget? You doubt it? Meet William Powers. His life style could change your mind.

A lean 6-footer with a shy but friendly manner, and a tendency to speak so softly that companions often strain to hear him, Powers, 38, is a Los Angeles County lifeguard stationed at the Topanga section of Will Rogers State Beach. His take-home pay amounts to $1,500 a month.

Yet he indulges throughout the year in vacation-like pleasures, such as sailing, surfing, skiing, hunting--many times at expensive resorts--without running up huge credit card bills or going deeply into debt.

Some specifics of the fun that he packs into the time of his life:

--He skied 50 days last season (a period extending from Thanksgiving to July) and 39 days in the current season. "Mammoth closed early or I'd have made 50 again," he said. "But I hope to do 50 days next season."

--He travels annually to Idaho for the 11-day pheasant-hunting season.

--He makes two or three trips a year to surf at Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of Baja California.

--During the summer, Los Angeles County lifeguards work 10 hours a day, four days a week, with three days off. During those three days, achieving maximum time by driving at night, Powers may trek to the Colorado River to water ski, sail a catamaran or ride the rapids on a kayak.

--He also manages many three- or four-day trips throughout the year by carving up his three weeks' annual vacation time into one- or two-day add-on segments to regular weekends.

--A mere two-day weekend enables him to visit the Channel Islands, off the coast of Santa Barbara, which he regards as "one of the really beautiful vacation places, with some spectacular surfing, no crowds and water so clear it takes your breath away."

--Even ordinary workdays are not without time for exhilarating activity. Bill Powers awakens before 6 most mornings, in his Santa Monica apartment two blocks from the ocean. Waves and weather permitting, he surfs before reporting to lifeguard duty. At day's end, especially in the summer, "I like to sail my catamaran for an hour or two, just to clear my head."

Frequent holidays, especially at luxury resorts, can strain the budget of even the well-heeled tourist. Bill Powers manages to enjoy a luxurious life style thanks to a combination of attributes. He is a versatile and accomplished athlete who instructs others in everything from sailing to wind-surfing to water-skiing to hunting (including dog-training) to horseback-riding to mono-skiing (two feet on a single ski) from mountaintops.

The instructions, he said, require no payment. "If I give people ski lessons, and they let me stay at their condominium, or invite me to dinner, or let me ride somewhere with them, it's a fair exchange and there's no money involved. Mostly it's a gesture of friendship on both sides. I've found that the further I stay away from financial dealings, the more easily things work out."

A Frugal Man

Powers is frugal. He pays $250 a month rent for his tiny apartment, where the most conspicuous decoration is a large collection of skis. He rides a bicycle around Santa Monica and travels longer distances in his 1976 Ford van, which has logged 136,000 miles. He flies tourist class unless a wealthy friend happens to offer a trip on a private plane.

Powers also saves on what he regards as non-essentials. He said: "I'm not into the night life. I'm usually asleep by 9 or 10 o'clock. I'm not into a lot of clothes. What I like is to travel, not just to go and look but to go and do . Whether it's surfing in Peru or pheasant hunting in Idaho or heading up north for helicopter skiing, I like to go and do."

But Powers brushes aside any suggestion that he leads a glamorous life style. " Glamorous is not a word I use," he said, "and in any case it sure doesn't apply to lifeguarding. One big misconception is, a lot of people think all we do is pull Playboy Bunnies out of the surf.

Crisis Prevention

"The truth is different. Every year we reunite thousands of lost children with their parents. We make thousands of swimming rescues and thousands of boat rescues. We try to work on crisis prevention, meaning we warn people about dangerous situations, not only for their sake but for others'. It's especially important if only one lifeguard is on duty. You see, once a lifeguard goes into the water to effect a rescue, there's nobody watching the beach.

"We get maybe 75 million people a year at the beaches, and it means we have to deal with an awful lot of crisis situations. We really need those three-day weekends in the summer because the problems can be real exhausting.

"We have to watch not only the beach but the parking lot because there are car burglaries. I don't mean there are no police, but if they're busy some other place they might not show up for an hour. And it's not like we carry any weapons. We're just standing there in our swimming trunks, trying to keep things under control.

"We have to keep an eye on the surfers. Some of them are real aggressive, neurotic, screwball characters. Sometimes they're out there spearing each other. I mean, real violence in the water. I break up fights a lot.

Problems With Drinkers

"Drinking is another big problem. A lot of people bring beer to the beach. Someone who has two beers doesn't bother me, but the guy who gets smashed and then slides into the water without a splash--that's a real dangerous situation. Especially when there are thousands of people on the beach and it's tough to see everybody. Or if we're doing first aid on somebody, and 3,000 yards down the beach a drunk goes into the water. Drowning can happen real fast.

"We also have to keep an eye on people who like to take chances, like climbing around rocks in risky places. And we have to keep in mind the ocean always changes, whether it's the wind or the light or the swell.

"One time when it was very quiet, only a few people on the beach, I went for a run. While I ran, a man walked by. He was wearing street clothes, which kind of caught my eyes, and when I turned around a little later, he was suddenly gone. I ran to the tower and put my binoculars on the water. I saw something floating out there. In the glare of the sun I couldn't make out details, but something was definitely there.

'If in Doubt'

"Well, our attitude in the lifeguard service is, 'If in doubt, go.' So I paddled out about two miles, and it turned out to be a big balloon. It became a joke among the other lifeguards. For about two weeks after that, they'd come up and say, 'Hey, Powers, have you rescued any balloons lately?' "

Bill Powers grew up in Azusa, where he learned to swim as a boy.

He won a statewide high school swimming championship, and he went into training for the 1964 Olympics, but an auto accident stopped his chances. He became proficient at skiing, hunting, sky diving, horseback riding, training retrievers.

Drafted into the Army, he was assigned to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. "The first thing I did there was check out the swimming pool, which was the most impressive I've ever seen, 103 meters long and 25 meters across, meaning it was more than twice Olympic size.

"I spoke to the provost marshal, who happened to be interested in swimming--his daughter was on the swim team. He assigned me to lifeguard duty and also to coach the swim team. During my off-hours I got into surfing the big waves at Sunset Beach.

'Really Great Duty'

"I also went over to Dillingham airfield, where they did jumping, and--because of my sports parachuting background--they let me help put out some students, and that paid a bit of extra money. All in all, those two years in the Army amounted to really great duty."

Following the Army hitch he took up civilian life in Hawaii "where I'd made a lot of friends. I taught sport parachuting and I coached a swim group made up of military dependents. Up until then that particular group had been mostly a baby-sitting trip for the benefit of the parents.

"I took the youngsters and put them through 3,000 to 4,000 yards a day. Parents would come up to me and say, 'Hey, my kid comes home so tired, he doesn't have enough energy to study.' And I'd say, 'Well, if he's getting in shape, he's doing a lot better.' "

Powers stayed in Hawaii five years, "which gave me time to think and kind of plan out what I wanted to do. I decided to return to California and become a lifeguard. The first step is to be a recurrent lifeguard, which is just a summertime position, and then after two years you take the test to be a permanent lifeguard, which is full time. I also decided to buy a catamaran, which is another sport I'd gotten very involved with in Hawaii."

Hired as a permanent lifeguard in 1975, Powers was assigned to duty at a series of beaches from Zuma on the north to San Pedro on the south.

Weather Factor

He takes some trips impulsively, plans others with careful attention to weather, wind, snow or surf conditions. He takes care nearly always to give friends advance notice of his arrival, so that rent-free shelter arrangements can be made.

When Powers goes to Idaho annually for the pheasant-hunting season, he travels in his Ford van, or flies tourist-class or in friends' aircraft. "I always meet a lot of old friends, and they introduce me to other folks. I'll help them with their guns and their (hunting) dogs." Powers, in turn, is provided with living quarters and meals. "So I get two weeks of hunting that would probably cost somebody else $3,000 or more. "Same thing happens when I teach people sailing or wind-surfing, especially at a resort where ordinarily I couldn't afford the rates. They'll put me up in a nice room and they'll take care of meals and they just don't charge me.

"When I go to a ski lodge, I'll take a few extra mono-skis with me. I'm always glad to show people how to use the mono-skis. And there are always folks who, in return, will invite me to a nice dinner and offer me the use of their condominium. So it adds up to a very nice arrangement.

"What I'd like to work out is some way to get a break on helicopter skiing. It's different from the regular lifts at Mammoth. With helicopter skiing, which I've done up in Canada, they'll take you up to a peak where there are no lifts. They drop you off and you ski down with a guide. It's maybe a five-mile run. The chopper keeps taking you back up to the peak, and you do four or five runs. They set up a shelter somewhere, serve you a real nice lunch, and then you do three or four more runs. By that time, unless you've got iron legs, you're ready to go to bed.

"But operating a helicopter is awfully expensive, and I've found it's real hard to get any kind of a break on those lift tickets. I'd wanted to do some helicopter skiing this year, but it looked like maybe $2,000 for seven days, and I couldn't put that together.

'I Have No Complaints'

"But believe me, I have no complaints. I go down to Cabo San Lucas maybe three times a year, basically to surf. It's really a rare place. The tip of the peninsula, with big rocks coming up out of the ocean, looks almost prehistoric. The land is like a tropical desert. You wake up at daylight, looking for waves. You surf all day and when the sun goes down, it's time to get some sleep.

"Closer to home, right off Santa Barbara, I go to the Channel Islands every chance I get. I know the area real well, and people ask me to go out on boats with them, to show them where to go, because the islands are kind of tricky, especially when the wind blows. But it's a great vacation place, for surfing and diving, and it's a great adventure place, too. At certain times of the year you'll see whales, sharks, flying fish. And on the Islands there's a lot of wildlife--bighorn sheep, pigs and deer."

Powers is a bachelor, a status he attributes to his endless quest for adventure. "I've had some real nice lady friends," he said, "but it's real hard to have a long-term relationship when you live the way I do, going off to places on the spur of the moment.

"I never have a day where I'm just sitting home in a chair, doing nothing but relaxing. I like to train real hard so that the minute I step on the hill, I'm in great shape to ski full blast. You know, on my last trip I skied nine days in a row, and on the ninth day I was as strong as when I started. I didn't want to come back."

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