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Fighting the Tide
The current is deadly, the crowds are clueless, and the surf’s always up. On a coastline patrolled by some of the nation’s finest lifeguards, the team at Zuma may be the most storied
Photograph by Dustin Snipes
Los Angeles County Lifeguard captain Chuck Moore felt a ghost on the nape of his neck one winter afternoon. The stem of the day had arrived at the season’s end on Santa Monica Beach, and the pale sand was empty. Moore was alone, manning a blue tower, when the itch arrived. Something going on behind him. The nearest backup that afternoon was a guard two towers down. Moore had grown up in Topanga Canyon in the 1960s. He’d bodysurfed at Venice Pier, played water polo in high school, met his wife at a swim-team party, and after graduation tested into the county lifeguard service in 1978. That fall day in 1986, he was back on the beach of his youth, stationed in a plywood box and scanning the weekend swarm—on hot days 3,000 people can fill the shingle of sand around a lifeguard tower—looking for potential drowning candidates.
Scanning is a learned skill. The chubby guy wearing a farmer’s tan and cutoff shorts gets flagged. The dog paddler. The lone woman holding her nose at a wave’s approach and wincing. The kid without fins riding a boogie board. All bob inside the most dangerous 50 feet of the world’s most dangerous ocean. Each must be followed by the guard’s pivoting gaze. Scanning reorders the mesh of objects and space in a guard’s brain, like a software program that commandeers a computer’s motherboard. On trips to the beach with their own families, L.A. lifeguards close their eyes or turn their chairs to the Mississippi’s western shore to halt their corneas from locking into scan. “I can’t go to restaurants anymore,” says a guard. “I’m scanning all the time, from table to table, face to face, movement to movement.”
Over time something else develops in the guard’s mind—the ghost of premonition. “It’s like a sixth sense,” says Moore. “You wait for young guards to pick up on it—to catch things at the edge of their vision, like a weak swim stroke in the distance.” The ghost seizes on movement outside the envelope: a strange riffle in remote surf that turns out to be a woman trapped beneath a downed piling, a horizon disturbance that, once magnified by binoculars, resolves into a man fixed atop a plastic cooler floating away.
Moore sensed motion behind his head in Santa Monica—a tiny pink figure was splashing in a lagoon formed by the Pico-Kenter storm drain. In those days Pico-Kenter ran purple with dumped mimeograph ink and green with discarded antifreeze. By the time he arrived at the lagoon’s edge, Pico-Kenter was quiet. But beneath its surface, about a dozen feet out, Moore could spy a three-year-old girl dressed in a pink jumpsuit. Her eyes and mouth were gaping ovals, and she was slipping from sight toward the invisible bottom. “I jumped in, grabbed her, pulled her out, and she started coughing and crying,” says Moore. “There wasn’t another person on the beach.” No phone, no backup, no parents. Two paramedics hanging out in a nearby lot ran over with some oxygen. Ten minutes later a couple strolled over to the triage scene, asking, “Hey, our daughter wandered off. Anyone here seen her?”
Now 51, with a full head of black hair on his six-foot frame and wire-rim glasses, Moore has rescued more than a thousand swimmers in 33 years of lifeguarding. How many would have died without him? The cautious math lifeguards feel comfortable offering is 30 percent, or 300 lost souls. “But when you work on a beach with other guards,” says Moore, “you can never say, ‘I saved that guy’s life for sure.’ You always have backup.” Yet Moore knows he has ten people like the girl at Pico-Kenter who would be dead had he not been there.
The Los Angeles County Lifeguard Service performs more rescues than any other lifeguard organization in the world: 10,237 in 2007, 12,282 in 2008, and 12,686 last year. More than 100,000 swimmers were saved in the past decade alone. During the same period, just 11 swimmers drowned along the 72 miles of county coastline that the lifeguard patrols. Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa have strong lifeguard services, and in the United States, Galveston, Daytona Beach, and New Jersey’s Monmouth County are known for their performance. But L.A. County is more successful and the largest of these, with 103 full-time and 778 seasonal guards filling 158 beach towers. In 24 years of national competitions, L.A. has won every meet and become California’s leading cultural export to Germany, where Baywatch has made David Hasselhoff the most famous flotation device since the Bismarck.
The County Lifeguard’s reputation draws prospects from the best operations around the country. Nearly every one of these individuals already has a full-time career: They are teachers, firefighters, lawyers, airline pilots, highway workers, and car salesmen. Almost every September as many as 350 candidates line up on a county beach to confront the first hurdle, a 1,200-meter ocean swim. On average, the 110 best are picked to be enrolled in the lifeguard academy. From there they must make it through a grueling ten days of competitions, up to 12 hours a day: ocean swims, beach runs, ocean swims with beach runs, ocean swims with beach runs with ocean swims. Every day, every race, they are being ranked again and again until they graduate. They are now recurrent guards and are bestowed the summer hours that their rank has earned them. If they stick with the job, they can find themselves on a beach every June through August. Should they decide, as Moore did, that they want to make the guard their full-time career, they apply for permanent status. That exam takes place once every two years and draws 50 to 100 applicants. Of those, only five are chosen to be permanent members of the county guard.
Moore spent two decades in towers on beaches like Venice and Dockweiler before deciding he wanted to be promoted to captain of Malibu’s Zuma Beach. Zuma, he knew, was unlike any other beach in the county. It is a nearly two-mile strand the color of dirty linen, with a parking lot just as long, 16 towers, and a two-story headquarters. It can hold 100,000 people with room to spare but has no bike path, no boardwalk, no marijuana pharmacies—only the steady blur of Highway 1’s traffic, the strongest summer surf on the coastline, and more rescues per capita than any other county beach. (During one month, July 2007, more than a thousand swimmers were rescued from the sea at Zuma—far beyond what other beaches see in a year.)
In Venice Moore had fights to deal with; he had the homeless, the gangs, the freaks. The action was often behind him. “I had a drug deal one day go bad, and a guy ends up getting run over multiple times,” he says. “Two hundred people witnessed it, and no one gets a license plate. What we performed on the guy didn’t really amount to CPR. He was a puddle mess.”
Compared to Venice, Zuma—at the county’s north end—was the boondocks. If you sketched a line from Point Dume, where Zuma begins, and extended it across Santa Monica Bay to Palos Verdes, Venice Beach would be several miles east of the line’s middle. Being on the outer tip of the bay meant Zuma’s water was the purest, its surf the creamiest, its ocean breeze the coldest and the briniest. The spires of the Santa Monica Mountains ringed the shore, but that remoteness meant something else, too: Zuma was its own world.
Like any county guard, Moore had heard the stories. Zuma was a company town, went one tale. Within the Zuma Guard, only men and women born in Malibu were deemed able to understand the inner workings of the beach’s unruly surf. Moore had also heard that, as in some Appalachian holler, certain names had been echoing around the isolated beach for generations. It almost seemed as if the Zuma Guard would hire from only the same few family trees. Moore knew how they considered their beach “God’s country,” in part due to the long string of championships the Zuma Guard had taken away from L.A. County’s own intramural lifeguard competitions. He had seen the fossilized surfboards hanging on the walls of Zuma’s headquarters, not modern fiberglass planks but hulking carved wood totems, each bearing the years of Zuma’s victories before Moore came on: 1968, 1970, 1971, 1976, 1977, 1986, 1987, 1988.
When he arrived in 1996, Moore found himself on an alien beach with its own rules. “It was Zumastan,” he says. Moore was informed that he shouldn’t have the shift his seniority guaranteed because even though he had grown up ten miles away in Topanga, he’d never surfed Malibu and therefore couldn’t read the waters off Zuma. “And this,” says Moore, “was told to me by a guy who is long retired now, so that thinking in the Zuma Guard is ancient.”
“Oh, I know Chuck Moore, ALL right.” The voice drifting up from the hold of a docked Baywatch patrol boat twanged like an old hillbilly record in the sultry San Pedro air. “Chuck—he’s a great guy. Great leader, too.” The voice emanated from what looked to be a long, rangy, exotic, tanned root vegetable pulled out of rich Kentucky loam. “Yeah, Chuck’s a great guy,” drawled Mark Tamkin, ex-Zuma Guard, gap-toothed, wearing a baseball cap, shorts, and tennis shoes, as he bent splay legged over a stubborn chrome engine that was mysteriously running hot. “But Chuck,” said Tamkin, letting his wrench slip onto the cylinder block with a ping, “is not a Zuma guy.”
Tamkin, along with his partner, Gary Fortune, spends days in the 32-foot county boat, patrolling the broken cliffs and hidden beaches of Portuguese Bend, watching for distressed beachgoers and watercraft. In rip-current rescues, Baywatch boats zip into the breakers, picking up exhausted swimmers. It has been 16 years since Tamkin left a decade-long stint at Zuma, where once during a particularly chaotic rescue his Baywatch cruiser became caught in heavy surf and was washed ashore. But Tamkin still wears his service in the north like a favorite tattoo.
“See, the thing that makes Zuma special,” he explained, “is all that fresh current washing through there all the time. You can just taste it. Take a bead from Point Dume right onto Anacapa Island, all right? That is the 34th parallel, and for some reason there is a submarine canyon right on that line that drops off into the abyss. You know how wind comes through a valley? Well, ocean currents come through that canyon and just draw up all that bottom water.”
Dume Canyon, beneath the whitecaps off Zuma Beach, is more than a thousand feet deep, an indigo gulp silently patrolled by bony cusk eels, serpentine hagfish, and the Little Man in the Gray Suit—the Zuma Guard’s name for the great white sharks that cruise the chasm. Its depth allows waves to pick up more speed and power than elsewhere along L.A.’s coastline, channeling high-frequency wave energy onto the Zuma shore. “When they get a swell at Zuma,” said Tamkin, “boom—all that energy is right there on the shoreline. Those are the special days, when the rip currents start pulling and the service up there makes 500 rescues with just a crew of 15.”
L.A. County’s coastline is home to several well-known rip currents, which form when waves pile excess seawater against the shore. A trench or crater on the ocean floor channels that excess water back into the sea in bursts that form essentially what is an outgoing river—one that can travel as fast as 15 mph and reach as far as 200 yards. Along the way the current picks up kelp, driftwood, sand, and people, who sometimes die in them. (Swimmers tire themselves by struggling toward shore against the rip instead of heading sideways out of the current.) More than a hundred people a year are believed to be killed in the United States by rip currents, making them the most dangerous natural hazard after floods.
Torrance Beach has the Hollywood Riviera Rip; Manhattan Beach, the El Porto Rip; and off El Segundo lies the “mother of all rips,” Hammerland. But the county’s most infamous is one in Venice: Reggie’s Rip, named after a teenage boy who died during a rescue attempt. Reggie’s is known as a stationary rip. The ocean floor off Venice is stable and always releases excess water in the same location. At Zuma the intense wave action forms new holes every day on the ocean floor. The Zuma rips are transient. “Once those rips start generating at Zuma,” said Tamkin, leaning against his boat’s stern, “they’re like tornadoes touching down. You can get 20 of them going at once, moving up the beach from east to west.”
“When they’re popping up all over like that,” said his partner, Gary Fortune, “the lifeguards on Zuma are like cattle drivers. You drive the crowd left to avoid one rip, and then drive them right to avoid the next. The weakest swimmers get sucked out, and those you rescue.”
At Zuma they say the surf handles you. You dive down under its fleece and cling to the scarred bottom with your fingernails when the cascade rushes past, or else get tossed up on the sand like some poor grunion. “I went down and worked Venice once,” says a 30-year Zuma veteran. “The wave came, I dove down, held on to the sand, and nothing—like fairy dust blowing over you.” At Zuma the action is called fast, and you patrol the sand the whole day instead of sitting in your tower. “The rips boil up so fast at Zuma,” said Tamkin, “that you can be talking to someone standing in the surf when, wham, they get pulled off their feet right before your eyes.
“If you think of how many drownings a year L.A. County has, which is sometimes none,” said Tamkin, “that is a pretty amazing statistic. Because it takes just one swimmer. Look at how many people are on your beach every day. Then the end of the afternoon comes. The sun starts dropping, the glare comes up on the water, and one of these big ol’ mean rips that hasn’t shown up for hours starts pulling. That’s the toughest time, two to six, when the crowds thin out, and that’s usually when we get our trouble. We call it ‘the drowning hour.’ ”
Zuma’s lifeguard operation was established fairly late in the century. When in 1945 the first county lifeguard was sent north of Point Dume with instructions not to return until October, the beach’s headquarters was an old hunting lodge that doubled as a bunkhouse. Zuma was so remote, lifeguards stayed the summer. There were only four towers on the beach. Soon a second bunkhouse was built that could sleep a dozen, but by the early ’70s, it had deteriorated into a rotting piece of driftwood overrun by rats. Lifeguards began sleeping outside in tents and trailers that were circled like wagons around campfires, and the Village was born.
In its first incarnation the Village was a frontier settlement on the shores of Zuma’s freshwater lagoon. Sitting near the entrance to the parking lot, that torpid swamp was a perfect setting for the Zuma Guard to live out its fantasies—nature’s own pestilent maw (today it’s called a “nature reserve”), complete with biting chiggers and clouds of maddening sand flies that rose up out of the reeds at night. The Zuma tribe drank and danced and went screaming naked across the sand into the frigid night surf.
Then things really got crazy. Converted school buses were brought in, and campers, and girls with fanciful ideas about lifeguards, and great maroon hunks of steer that were thrown raw onto the bonfires at night. Why go home? The bounty that the Zuma elite believed was naturally theirs was all here, all summer long. The Village soon relocated to the parking lot by the new Zuma headquarters. There it prospered until 1994, when the County Lifeguard, for operational reasons, became a division of the L.A. County Fire Department, and County Fire began peering down on the bonfires beside their new real estate, asking themselves, “What the hell is going on out there?” Today the fires and the school buses and the girls are gone, but at night while driving up PCH you can still find a dozen or two lifeguards, shivering miserably in the cold by their pickup trucks that double as homes during the summer.
Dick Heinrich woke up in the Village one morning and saw an actual school bus disgorging a load of students onto the sand. “Heinrich” is the most pervasive of names heard on Zuma. There are seven Heinrichs who patrol the beach, fathers and sons, brothers and nephews. Dick Heinrich, who is 58, is a shining example of the Zuma Guard. “When you start at Zuma,” Heinrich told me, “you always work Zuma. Guys come up from Manhattan, Hermosa, some other beach—they’re always going to be known as South Bay guards. It takes seasoning to become a Zuma lifeguard. It’s like the 101st Airborne, like being a marine. It’s a badge.”
Half asleep, Heinrich watched the unbelievable occur: The students running from the bus jumped into the water and, in one giant bobbing mass, were sucked out to sea by a huge rip current. Heinrich grabbed his rescue can—a red torpedo-shaped flotation device—and dove into the water after them. It was eight in the morning, and he was the only lifeguard on the beach.
He had been in rips like this before at Zuma. “They’re like Colorado River-type rapids,” he says. “I’ve actually been pulled out so far, I had to grab onto a buoy and hold on to my victim, and the two of us are just planing atop the surface like water skis, the current is so strong.” Nonswimmers caught in a rip have 15 seconds alone before their chances for survival nose-dive. Riding the rip like a flume toward the students, Heinrich glanced back and thought, “I hope someone up there sees this.”
Seconds later a captain’s voice came over the headquarters’ loudspeaker, and dazed lifeguards began emerging from their campers, picking up the rescue cans that were being tossed onto the sand from the tower. “I thought, ‘Hey—the cavalry is finally coming,’ ” says Heinrich. “We pulled 30 kids out that day.”
That amazing rescue never made the news. When Zuma lifeguard Christine Link-letter rescued the only two people on the beach one spring morning—a couple of girls who’d been swept out and lodged somewhere underwater before Linkletter pulled them up—that save never made the news. When Scott Grigsby felt the ghost on his neck and realized a kink in the horizon was some poor slob clinging to a Coleman cooler—that never made the news. In fact, next to none of the 12,686 rescues performed by the County Lifeguard last year made the news. Granted, the majority weren’t life-and-death struggles. But if you accept the guess that 30 percent of those saved would have drowned without assistance, and then imagine away the existence of the County Lifeguard, you get a doozy of a headline: “Death Toll Hits 4,000 on Coastline This Year!”
“You can train a lifeguard to be a fireman,” goes an old lifeguard saw, “but you can’t train a fireman to be a lifeguard.” It’s a maxim that touches on a particularly tender spot for county guards, one they address only off the record: the fawning coverage firefighters attract for their efforts versus the dearth of attention bestowed on lifeguards.
“A fireman rescues one person, and it becomes a big media event. A lifeguard at Zuma can rescue 30 people in a day, and you never hear a thing of it. That can be frustrating.”
“Firemen have reporters with scanners going after them. They have helicopters chasing after them. They have public information officers promoting their work. We don’t get that.”
“The difference between this job and what firemen do is simple: They’re never responsible for creating the blaze. Every rescue we perform, every swimmer that gets in trouble on our beach, we are responsible for because we didn’t step in early enough to stop it from developing.”
“We had a fireman on duty down in Redondo Beach,” says Bill Mount, a lifeguard at Point Dume. “Now, he was also a lifeguard. Someone got in trouble, and this guy jumps off the pier in uniform and saves him. But when he received an award for the rescue? He got notice as a fireman, not because he was a lifeguard.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, newspapers regularly reported lifeguard rescues: 425 swimmers assisted on July 8, 1957; 335 saved on July 20, 1964; and two weeks later on August 3, another 760 retrieved from the sea. If you scroll further back in history, the vivid details of rescues are described. In 1911, a 16-year-old boy is saved in high surf off Long Beach. In 1912, an eight-year-old boy is rescued after he falls from a rowboat offshore. In 1913, a drowning man is rescued at the last moment from a riptide.
What makes these three rescues interesting are the individuals who performed them. They were, respectively, a young woman who couldn’t swim a stroke before she performed the rescue, a 12-year-old boy who braved the surf alone, and a worker who dived from a pier and muscled an exhausted swimmer to shore. L.A. had not yet built a lifeguard organization to patrol its coastline. But that was about to change.
In 1907, while vacationing at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, the writer Jack London peered into the distant surf and caught sight of what he later described as a “Mercury—a brown Mercury…his heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea.” London had spotted George Freeth, a 23-year-old surfer, half Hawaiian, half English, who was preternaturally gifted in the water. Later that summer, with a letter of introduction from London, along with the blessings of the Hawaiian Promotion Committee, Freeth sailed to the West Coast, where the cigarette magnate Abbot Kinney soon took notice of him as someone who could protect the shores of his new development, Venice.
Lifeguarding in Los Angeles—or “lifesaving,” as it was called then—was still in an incipient stage. It was commonly believed that rip currents dragged swimmers underwater to their deaths, and lifeguards, mistrusting the sea, employed dories in rescues, sometimes with humiliating results. The day before London sighted Freeth in Waikiki, Kinney had christened his new Venice Lifesaving Crew. Weeks later, during a training drill, one of the crew’s dories flipped in the surf, and a lifeguard drowned while his colleagues helplessly watched from shore.
Freeth was asked to train Kinney’s crew, and modern lifeguarding as it is practiced everywhere in the world today was born. Freeth’s most radical idea was the simplest: A lifeguard would use his body instead of a boat to rescue swimmers in peril. He taught his guards to not fear rip currents but to swim into them and use their flow to reach their victims. On December 16, 1908, chance offered Freeth an opportunity to test his philosophy. Gale-force winds and high surf had trapped several Japanese fishermen in the waters off Venice Beach. Freeth, diving from the Venice Pier, swam out, and for the next two-and-a-half hours returned to shore several times with a new victim in tow. Seven fishermen were saved by him that day. Freeth nearly died from hypothermia, but the rescue made the front page of every major L.A. newspaper.
“That was the revolution in lifeguarding,” says Arthur Verge, a Venice guard who also teaches history at El Camino College. “Freeth changed everything. He won a congressional medal for that day in Venice. Because of him, the idea of using a body in rescues is specifically L.A. in origin. Venice and Redondo Beach would have struggled to develop if he had not helped make their shores safe. And the kids that he trained went on to form the nucleus of what is the County Lifeguard today.” Freeth, however, wouldn’t live to see his teachings come to fruition. In 1919, at the age of 35, he contracted Spanish influenza. He suffered terribly, lingering in a sanitarium. Four months after becoming ill, Freeth died. His remains were cremated and made the passage back to Oahu by boat.
Freeth, the surfer, swimmer, diver, and water polo champ, popularized the notion of the “waterman”—the ideal of the Zuma Guard. “A waterman,” says Rebecca Gilman, “is someone who knows the ocean conditions. They can surf, paddle, scuba, sail, and read the currents. The best waterman I ever knew was a Zuma lifeguard.”
Gilman can recall the instant she realized that she wanted to be a member of the Zuma Guard: It was a morning in rookie school in 2000 when a pair of Zuma men showed up to teach. She had sat through classes in self-defense, rip-current rescues, emergency beach driving, and the assessment of spinal injuries. She could handcuff a drunk beachgoer and plow a Jet Ski through an eight-foot wave when called upon. Then the Zuma guards walked in. “There was this presence about them,” says Gilman. “A weird calmness. I knew Zuma was where the action was. I knew not many women asked to go there. But my thing was wanting to prove people wrong, to prove I could hang with the best at Zuma. So that was my beach to aim for.”
If you’re new to the L.A. County Lifeguard, if you want seniority and a career, you don’t ask for Zuma Beach. You request Venice or Santa Monica, then watch as the hours pour like sand into your schedule. Gilman—brunet, tall, and with the expansive upper frame of a professional volleyball player—scored high on the physical and written sections of her finals. She got her request, Zuma, which meant she could sit on the low concrete wall that runs beside the beach’s headquarters, hoping for a shift to open. Few rookies ask for Zuma, but fewer guards give up their posts, leaving new arrivals like Gilman to wait for a tower to become available.
Gilman eventually landed her shift. Like any rookie, she learned the morning ritual of setting up her station: raising the wood shutters, washing the windows, sweeping out yesterday’s sand, writing up the day’s temperatures and tides, calling in to headquarters, arranging traffic cones to create a perimeter around the tower, hanging the red rescue can from the eaves, and hoisting a blackball flag when the hour arrives for surfers to exit the water. Like other rookies, she adapted to the tower’s ascetic interior, which includes a first aid kit, a pair of binoculars, a bottle of jellyfish juice (a mix of vinegar and water to neutralize stings), a tube of SPF 50, and a homemade coffee-can commode. Gilman adjusted to the morning fog, when guards can hear the waves and see empty towels on the beach but remain blind to swimmers and rips. She learned to look for kids digging holes in the sand—suffocation and death beneath collapsed dry sand is common among children. She learned how to soothe a bee sting, calm an agitated homeless person, assist a lost child, and explain politely to German tourists that David Hasselhoff does not work on her beach. She anticipated the appearance of the day’s biggest surf, which always hits at tower 1 due to the contour of the ocean floor there, and waited for the arrival of the beach buses that dumped teenage hordes at towers 6 and 7. She grew accustomed to the sight of Chuck Moore materializing from the mist, dropping his jacket as if he’d seen someone struggling in the water. It was a test, of course, but you hit the water, whether you saw something or not.
In time, Gilman settled in. She warmed to the rhythms of the day, to the view of the Santa Monica Mountains bursting at sunset, to the colors of water that her polarized sunglasses revealed: cyan, ocher, purple, chocolate, lapis lazuli, aquamarine, ultramarine, cerulean, indigo, and jade. One morning a rookie finally looks out, spies a sea lion tossing a flounder like a shimmering flapjack into the air, and thinks, “This is God’s country—my own 40 acres of sea prairie, where I am shepherd of all I survey.” She has at last arrived.
Then the first big day of the summer lands at Zuma. For Gilman it looked something like this: “The surf…was…insane. Scary big. The waves were crashing right on the sand, and the rips were pulling. I’m on the berm, freaking out, yelling at everybody. It was chaos. I didn’t have confidence yet. I had to learn to focus, though, because—to me? It looked like a gazillion people were about to die right there.” And that’s when a rookie thinks back on why the hell she asked for Zuma in the first place.
Big days at Zuma—the days seasoned lifeguards live for, when the wave zone resembles a drowning machine and the rips percolate up like steam volcanoes and the rescue numbers soar—occur when a swell from the southwest lands on the shoreline. There are maybe a dozen such days every year. Swell events, sets of storm-generated waves that have traveled like freight trains halfway around the world, can last for three days and are tracked by surfers and lifeguards alike. Often they have been named for the location of their origin—the Tasmanian Swell, the Aleutian Swell, the Solomon Swell. Zuma’s headquarters has no oceanic sciences laboratory, and staff rely on the work of a man named Nathan Cool, who lives with his girlfriend in a gated community near Thousand Oaks and posts his surf reports on a Web site called Wetsand.
“See this storm coming off Antarctica?” Cool and I were sitting in his living room, gazing at a laptop screen where a red blob was creeping from the southern ice sheet toward the Pitcairn Islands. A tiny volcanic archipelago midway between New Zealand and Chile, the islands were the final home of the mutineers on the HMS Bounty. Some 5,000 nautical miles away, the angry blob was a thousand miles across and spinning furiously, generating waves that would appear in Southern California in a week’s time. Those waves would be called the Pitcairn Swell.
Cool tapped a few keys, and his screen jumped. “See right there?” he asked, pointing to a quick jog in the blob’s path. “There was a real short window where he moved to the north, pretty much in line with us.” Because the coastline above Santa Monica angles to the northwest, it is ideally positioned to receive storm waves produced in the southwest Pacific. Waves from that region of the ocean strike Chuck Moore’s beach head-on, losing little of their impact. “I’d say Zuma will see seven-foot waves by the middle of next week from the Pitcairn Swell,” said Cool. “Not too bad.”
I drove out on a Sunday afternoon to watch Pitcairn arrive at Zuma. Inland temperatures had hit 90 degrees, and the beach was crowded. Few swimmers, however, were venturing into Pitcairn’s waves, which looked, in Rebecca Gilman’s terminology, “scary big.”
Dick Heinrich, wearing a red jacket and shorts and swinging a rescue can, was standing on the berm near tower 4, guarding a group of splashing waders. Heinrich is tall, still blond, and in incredible shape. That morning he had swum a two-hour masters class before biking to Point Mugu and back. Earlier this year he retired and moved with his wife to St. George, Utah, after a career of teaching eighth-grade science, and he was now spending the summer—as he had for the past four decades—in his pickup truck in the Village.
On the sand’s berm Heinrich pointed and asked, “See how choppy the water is getting out there right now?” A spot in the cream beyond the waders had begun to flutter and surge in multiple directions. “That’s going to be a really big rip in a minute.” A moment earlier we had watched as the shore’s lateral current—a constant flow of ocean water moving parallel to the shoreline—had ferried swimmer after swimmer down the beach a hundred yards or more. “I’ve seen lateral currents like that,” Heinrich had said, “that moved swimmers so quickly, it was a fast jog to keep pace.”
As Heinrich and I looked on, the lateral current halted. Its water had begun piling up by the metric ton over a trench in the ocean floor. A rip current was forming near a group of bathers. Heinrich scanned the cluster’s farthest edge, keeping tabs on a pair of teenage boys, a football player on a boogie board, and three tubby, tattooed men who evinced no apparent swim skills: Whenever the ocean rose up around them, the trio vanished with a pop under the waves, only to reappear smiling when the water subsided. At Zuma this happy pastime is called “intermittent drowning.”
“Those are the guys I’m worried about,” said Heinrich. “They’re out here, like, ‘Hey, it’s just another day at Castaic Lake!’ But that rip behind them is about to pull.”
Then the rip hit. The water beyond the waders went blurry, a green bloom appeared, and the ocean fell in on itself as a fresh current punched a foamy hole through the waves into open seas.
“Hey, hey, hey—out, out, out, out!”
Heinrich had dropped his jacket and was at the water’s edge, swinging his can in the air to draw attention, ready to dive in. The teenagers, followed by the three tatooed men, emerged one by one, bowlegged, straining against the rip. The football player on the boogie board, however, had already been yanked into the churn.
“That guy’s going to get worked,” said Heinrich, tracking the man’s bruising progress through a set of breakers until he landed 150 yards up the beach, welcomed by two stately women in matching bikinis who tossed him—what else?—a football in greeting.
Most swimmers don’t imagine they’ll ever require a lifeguard’s assistance. Many don’t make the connection that lifeguards save lives. “I’ll make ten rescues in an hour,” says Heinrich, “and then someone by my tower will walk up and say, ‘You lifeguards have the life, just sitting around and getting a tan all day.’ ” For beachgoers, lifeguards remain stuck in the realm of pop culture: bronzed and handsome, spending their hours talking to girls, lathering on suntan lotion, listening to classic rock, and dreaming of their sports cars.
It is a curious fact: County lifeguards who have saved a drowning victim are almost guaranteed they will never be thanked for the rescue. “This is the only job where you save lives for an entire career,” says Chuck Moore, “and at the end of the day you can count on one hand the number of people who said thanks.” In ocean rescues the beach converts into a theater of humiliation, where a few thousand people stand by watching the action unfold. If a child is in peril, two people have been singled out as bad parents. They in turn blame the kid or shun the guard. If it is an adult, she’s found herself cast in a very public production of her own making in which she is the star, the drowning victim.
On the shore a Japanese hipster in blue jeans with a cigarette in hand sauntered up to Heinrich and asked, “Hey, are there any riptides today?”
Heinrich laughed. “That’s the understatement of the day.”
Then the ocean fell in on itself again, another rip current. Fifty yards down the beach a bright flash of red, followed by a white splash, marked the spot where Chris Heinrich, Dick Heinrich’s 30-year-old nephew, hit the water. A swimmer with a shaved head and wearing Speedos was caught in the pull, disappearing into the waves.
Rip rescues at Zuma are tricky. The lateral current running along the sand is moving to the right. The rip is moving perpendicular to it, carrying the swimmer out to sea. So a lifeguard must enter the water to the left of the rip; he must be able to read the two currents as if they are subway trains running in different directions—boarding the first, the lateral, early enough to transfer onto the second in good position.
Chris Heinrich made the transition a hair off the mark, meeting up with the swimmer on the crest of a wave before the two were shot off on different paths and the swimmer was swept over the falls.
“Owww!” Dick Heinrich winced. “He can obviously swim, but he’s going to get messed up.”
Several lifeguards had gathered at the water. Twice more the swimmer poured over the falls, vanishing in cataracts before shooting to the surface, gasping for air. A Baywatch boat had arrived outside the breakers, ready to assist, while Chris Heinrich was carried farther to the west.
When at last the swimmer reached the shore, panting, his girlfriend joined him. For minutes they spoke in Russian without acknowledging the three guards beside them.
“Do you realize why we tried to save you?” Dick Heinrich asked. “Do you understand you were in trouble?”
No response. The Russians stared as if they didn’t understand English.
Then out of nowhere the swimmer asked, “What is that boat for?”
“You know you were in trouble,” said Heinrich.
“I am great swimmer,” the man boasted.
“If you were a great swimmer, we wouldn’t have gone after you.”
“But he is a great swimmer,” said the girlfriend, looking insulted.
Chris Heinrich jogged past. “Nice to see you again!” he said, smiling at the Russian without breaking stride. Just then a teenage girl ran up to the lifeguard, trotted silently beside him for a moment, and handed him a bottle of Gatorade before peeling away to return to her blanket. It was the only thanks coming that day.
Dave Gardetta is a writer-at-large for Los Angeles magazine. His article on estate sales appeared in the May issue.