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Laguna Beach’s lifeguards celebrate 90 years of rescues

Laguna Beach’s lifeguards celebrate 90 years of rescues
A 1986 Daily Pilot clipping shows Rob Patterson and Jon Brick, founding members of the Laguna Beach Ocean Lifeguard Foundation, competing in a lifeguard contest at the San Clemente Ocean Festival. (Courtesy of Laguna Beach Ocean Lifeguard Foundation)

It was 1964, the year Mark Klosterman and his family moved to Laguna Beach. Klosterman, then 12, was body surfing with playmates on a summer day at South Laguna’s Three Arch Bay Beach.

A giant rip current caught Klosterman in its grip. Within seconds, he realized he might not make it back to shore.

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A lifeguard swam out to him and wrapped him in a rescue tube. With a few words of comfort and the child in his grasp, the lifeguard swam through the surf back to safety.

“You just don’t forget something like that,” said Klosterman, now 66. “And I just thought, ‘Wow, if I could ever, ever do that — become confident enough and trained enough to do that — I’d love to return the favor to somebody.’ ”

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Klosterman devoted 35 years of his career to ocean lifeguarding in Laguna Beach before retiring as marine safety chief in 2009. In recent years, he helped establish the Laguna Beach Ocean Lifeguard Foundation.

His time in the lifeguard community has spanned half the history of Laguna Beach’s lifeguard department, which is celebrating 90 years of watching the beaches, providing medical assistance and rescuing swimmers.

The city’s Marine Safety Department, the Laguna Beach Marine Safety Assn. and the Ocean Lifeguard Foundation are planning a lineup of festivities for Saturday.

The day will begin at Main Beach with a surf relay competition at 10 a.m., followed by a group photo and a tour of the marine safety headquarters. Lunch will be served at 1 p.m. at Heisler Park, with another gathering set for 4 p.m. at Hennessey’s Tavern.

Current Marine Safety Chief Kevin Snow said the activities are a reminder that to go forward, one must remember the past.

“Every one of these people … contributed to making Laguna Beach a safer place,” he said. “Having this group of people continually be dedicated to lifesaving in Laguna Beach is a huge bonus to the community.”

The lifeguard department is nearly as old as the city itself, according to a resolution that Mayor Bob Whalen signed last week. Laguna Beach incorporated as a city in 1927, just two years before its institution of lifeguards.

A Laguna Beach lifeguard helps a swimmer back to shore after huge set of waves south of the Montage Laguna Beach created problems in June 2018.
A Laguna Beach lifeguard helps a swimmer back to shore after huge set of waves south of the Montage Laguna Beach created problems in June 2018. (File Photo)

Some aspects of the profession have changed in the past 90 years. The city’s first lifeguards patrolled Main Beach on horseback, according to the resolution.

In the early days, tourism was mostly limited to the summer. Now, tourists come to the beach year-round. And nowadays, summer lifeguards at 30 towers are bombarded with calls for rescue, medical aid and enforcement from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The department has averaged 4,500 rescues annually the past three years, Snow said.

Some of the equipment has changed as well. In the 1920s, Klosterman said, lifeguards made rescues with a reel system. A team of two would haul a coil of rope to the shoreline. One lifeguard would swim out to the person in need and the one onshore would pull the rope to drag them back to safety.

A more modern invention a few years later introduced a torpedo buoy — a metal floating device that swimmers clung to while being brought to shore.

Today, lifeguards use a rubber floating device, paddleboards and personal watercraft.

Some things haven’t changed though.

To Klosterman, “saving a life is still the most rewarding thing you could ever do.”

“You leave the beach after truly making a difference in an individual’s life, in a family’s life, in friends’ lives,” he said.

Laguna Beach lifeguards go through intensive training, some starting as early as age 8. The Junior Lifeguards program introduces ocean safety, beach activities, fitness and rescue techniques to 8- to 15-year-olds.

Beginning lifeguards 16 and older spend their first year under heavy supervision on Main Beach, learning from more-experienced lifeguards.

“You end up being someone who’s very self-sufficient and very creative in the way you do things,” said Jon Brick, a founding member of the Laguna Beach Ocean Lifeguard Foundation and a Laguna lifeguard in the 1970s and ’80s.

After the initial training on Main Beach, many lifeguards are stationed alone at coves along Laguna’s nearly seven miles of coastline, where they must handle responsibility for dozens of visitors.

“It’s one of those first jobs that really, I think, prepares you for things in the future, because you’re handed this enormous amount of responsibility at a very young age and you’re dealing with real-life problems,” Brick said.

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The grueling training and sometimes life-and-death work experiences can seal lasting friendships, he said.

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In a small coastal city like Laguna, “everybody is involved in the beach,” Brick said. “Everybody in the city knows a lifeguard.”

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