Winter isn't always downtime for H.B. lifeguards

For Huntington Beach Marine Safety Officer Chris Clarke, the winter months are typically the time of year when he and his colleagues can recharge their batteries after a busy summer.

But the hoped-for slow-down didn't happen this year.

The unseasonably warm weather in Huntington Beach over the past several weeks put a strain on the Marine Safety Division, which had a fraction of the staff to watch thousands of people on the beach.

On a typical summer day, 40 to 50 lifeguards — including those from the seasonal ranks — patrol the sand and water and man the 30 towers along 3.5 miles of shoreline. When winter rolls around, however, all but one tower shuts down and the staffing level drops to around five people a day, Marine Safety Lt. Greg Crow said.

"It hasn't really slowed down," said Clarke, a 22-year veteran in the department. "We actually had some towers open a couple of days, which is unheard of."

Crow looked at pictures of the beach from Jan. 1 and estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 people had flocked to the sand that day — when about four people were on patrol.

"You do a lot of chasing around to try and keep a lid on things, because if you have two or three rescues going on at the same time, you run out of people to deal with it," he said. "So there's a lot of running around and a lot of worrying, but our four guys do the work of 40 guys."

But respites do arrive. One afternoon last week, the sky was overcast, the air temperature dropped to around the low 60s and the water was an unseasonably warm though still chilly 59 degrees, Clarke said.

As Crow was in the lifeguard headquarters at Pacific Coast Highway and First Street organizing towers of paper slips recording last year's calls for service, Clarke was on the sand cruising in one of the department's red Toyota pickups.

Motoring at the beach limit of 15 miles per hour, he passed a group of young adults playing volleyball, parents walking their toddler through the sand, several dogs running around and barking and a dozen or more surfers looking to catch a few waves.

Facing what he considered a very light crowd that afternoon, Clarke was able to turn his steering wheel toward the shoreline and drive the truck through the wet, smooth sand to get a better view of those in the water.

It's a rare occasion when there are no bodies in the sand, he said. Most of the time he is forced to drive behind the lifeguard towers.

"This is what we like," he said with a chuckle. "We don't have to drive over the bumps. It's just smooth sailing. And it protects our backs."

Clarke coasted near the water for a few minutes, turned back onto the jarring sand and performed some of the more mundane aspects of his job. He politely told a couple not to climb up a lifeguard tower and warned several folks walking their dogs on the state beach that they would be cited if they didn't go back to the dog beach.

As he headed back to headquarters, he spotted a surfer beyond the surf line, away from the others in the water, and he was paddling irregularly.

"You see surfers paddle and you barely see their arms. It's pretty stealth," Clarke said. "But look how far their arms are out of the water, and they're kicking with lots of splashing."

He stopped the truck and watched for several minutes, trying to determine if the surfer needed his help.

"I'll watch them and see what their demeanor is," Clarke said. "If they look panicky or look like they're in trouble, I'll take a paddleboard out and just go and make contact with them and drag them in."

The surfer continued to paddle out farther and farther away from the shore and began to disappear and reappear in the water. At first, Clarke thought the person was falling off the board and hopping back on.

But the marine safety officer soon realized from the constant popping in and out of the water that the surfer was practicing duck-diving — when a person pushes his or her board nose first into the water to get under a breaking wave.

"They're trying to be a better surfer, which I can respect," Clarke said. "And not doing it in the surf line is probably a good idea."

The marine safety officer began to drive away from the area while still staring at the surfer, wanting to be absolutely sure that the person didn't need his help.

Clarke ended his shift by dodging a few dogs who chased his truck, glancing at the 4- to 5-foot waves and scanning the almost desolate beach.

He embraces these less-frantic scenes, knowing that they can be fleeting.

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