Gray clouds and higher-than-usual winds greet them as they gather. Some are sleepy and sluggish; some are already straining to begin the morning training as if wild-horse energy infuses their muscles. It’s 8 a.m. on a Red Flag day. Winds have whipped the waves into a churning, frothy mess. All along the beaches, trained eyes spot rip currents. It’s a day to keep swimmers out of the ocean, and because some of those swimmers will ignore the warnings, it’ll be a long day for these lifeguards. But first, the physical training — a required workout that would leave most people prone on the sand but is merely a tune-up for these 40 young athletes. For an hour, they run practice rescues in and out of those waves, do sprints in the sand, then hit the road for a group run. No one lags, or is left behind.
By 10 a.m., the guards are in place on their stands, coolers of water, buoys, fins, and binoculars in hand. Even though it’s midsummer, they’ve also brought warm sweatpants and parkas; with high winds, it’s chilly up there. They post the red flags, write warnings on their chalkboards, and get ready. The supervisors in rescue trucks who patrol between stands will do extra duty today, and the guards who patrol in ATVs know that their chances of going in for a rescue are higher than usual. And the young men and women guarding the shoreline don’t take their eyes off the water or the people on “their” beach. They make a mental map of who’s sitting where. That way, absences are more obvious.
Most beachgoers respect the red flags. But someone always feels he or she can outmaneuver Mother Ocean. Trained to look for distress signs that others might ignore, a guard on the stand sees someone in trouble. He radios backup, jumps down from the stand, snatches up buoy and fins, and runs into the surf.
It’s his job.
Want to be an Ocean Rescue guard? Step right this way. But wait. A few small details:
- Pass a Red Cross Lifeguard training certification, CPR and First Responder training, and an ATV test.
- Swim 500 meters (10 laps in a regulation pool) in less than 10 minutes.
- Run a mile in less than seven minutes — immediately after the swim test.
- In a cold, springtime ocean, pass the two-week preseason training, including daily practice rescues and intense cross-training conditioning.
- Master search and rescue techniques and procedures; memorize stand locations and procedures.
- Participate in weekly physical training sessions and competitions.
Oh, and this one: Have the wherewithal to handle life-and-death situations.
Very few qualify. Those who do are your Outer Banks Ocean Rescue guards.
To the outside observer, the job appears glamorous: Fit, bronzed young people get to be on the beach all day, driving ATVs, ever watchful for signs of distress in or out of the water, ever watched by the admiring sunbathers. They’re heroes who save a drowning man or reunite a lost child with her family.
Guards appreciate the cred, sure. But after a couple of weeks on the stand, after several rescues, the absolute seriousness of what they do day in and day out on the beach becomes crystal clear: This is not your ordinary summer job. And it’s way beyond knowing that people on the beach think you’re hot.
That metamorphosis from young guard to seasoned veteran is part of what Chad Motz, captain of the Nags Head squad since 2004, appreciates witnessing. “It’s almost like a transition from kid into adult. When they’ve had that experience of actually saving a person’s life, of knowing that, had they not been there with their skills, that person most likely would have died — well, it changes them. They begin to respect themselves and the job in a deeper way. And when I see that change in self-respect — confidence — it affects pretty much everything else in their lives.”
Motz certainly experienced that shift in his own life. After earning a degree in physical education and spending summers as a camp leader, he decided that living on the beach, in a place far warmer than his native Nova Scotia, Canada, sounded like a pretty good idea. Down he came to try his hand at ocean guarding. Motz was a swimmer, but not a surfer, so it took some training to get him comfortable in the waves — and Outer Banks waves can be exceptionally big and strong. His first year guarding was in 2001; by 2003, Motz was a supervisor, and the next season, he was promoted to captain. Since then, he’s been hiring, training, and supervising the 40 guards of summer.
In addition to the Nags Head Ocean Rescue squad, guards are stationed at Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, and Duck/Southern Shores, which also handles the National Park Service sites at Coquina Beach, Hatteras, Ocracoke, and the Old Swimming Hole in Manteo. All told, on a typical summer day, some 50 guards keep swimmers safe. Mirek Dabrowski, who’s headed up the Duck/Southern Shores guards since 2000, and David Elder, supervising lifeguard of the Kill Devil Hills Ocean Rescue group, were two of the early guards in the area, hired by Sandy Sanderson in 1986 for the town of Nags Head.
If the genesis of an organization can take human form, Sanderson is it. He was hired by Nags Head in 1976 as a police officer, with the secondary duty of creating an ocean rescue service. Until then, surfers who knew the waters well were hired by J&H Beach Service. They provided guard services for specific oceanfront hotels, and also rented chairs and umbrellas. No formalized training existed, never mind any system of communication between guards. If a guy (and, from what information is available about that era, they were all guys at that point) went in for a rescue, he was pretty much on his own. Better than nothing, yes, but as the number of tourists grew, a step up was clearly necessary. That first year, Sanderson hired Randy Metzger — who still lives on the Outer Banks — to assist in a roving patrol. Armed with a four-wheel drive vehicle and a Jet Ski, the two men filled the gaps between hotel guards. Not a lot of manpower, granted, but manpower with training: CPR, American Red Cross lifeguard certification, and first responder classes.
The next summer, Sanderson hired 17-year-old Stu Golliday, who also still lives and works here, to increase the guards’ presence. In the early 1980s, six lifeguard stands were added on the beaches, the first and second at Bonnet Street and Jennette’s Pier. By 1983, the team was using ATVs to more easily patrol the beach between stands, vehicles that also got them to the scene of a rescue quicker. A few years later, in 1986, Dabrowski and Elder came on board, and the service evolved into the streamlined, highly trained group of guards it is today.
Before the present-day systems were in place, and before the Outer Banks Medical Center opened, all rescues that required transport went to a Currituck County doctor. And that transportation time meant some victims died. Once Sanderson received a helicopter (through a grant), the chopper could land right on the beach, fly to the former Elizabeth City Hospital, and put down right in the parking lot. So that guards could remain on the beach, EMT volunteers rode along. Jet Ski rescues were also prevalent then, Sanderson says. Now, the greater number of guards means that rescues situated far off shore can be prevented before they happen. Compared to the early ’80s, today’s communication between stands — including decisions to fly red flags or sharing information on weather systems — is seamless.
A pattern emerges among guards hired many years ago who are still involved as captains of squads or in other areas requiring extreme physical fitness. Golliday, for example, manages a sports club and is a personal trainer; several others also work as fire-fighters, EMTs, or physical therapists. At 54, Dabrowski holds the honor of being the longest-serving lifeguard on the beach. “When you do what you love, you never work a day in your life,” he says. “Look at where my office is! There aren’t many people this lucky.” Since he manages an average of 46 young people yearly, and has been running this show for 15 years, Dabrowski’s appreciation of his job is a true asset. And he must be doing something right: He has room for only 10 new hires this summer.
“This lifestyle gets in your blood,” Sanderson explains. “Once you’ve internalized this training and had the exhilaration of saving lives, it’s a tough thing to let go of. A ‘normal’ job that doesn’t give you the same adrenaline rush just can’t compete.” Motz echoes the statement, especially in terms of the physical fitness aspect. “I place a high value on helping these young people get into peak shape. To see them at the start of a summer, when they’re already fairly above the fitness of an average person their age, morph into men and women who are in unbelievable shape, is one of my most rewarding experiences. Plus, for me, what other job could I have where I actually get paid to work out? It’s an addicting lifestyle.”
It’s also one that creates tight bonds of friendship and, in some cases, family traditions. This author was the first woman hired as an Ocean Rescue guard on the Outer Banks; both my son and son-in-law have been Nags Head guards, the latter for seven seasons. Motz’s wife was a summer guard for many years. Plenty of siblings have worked these beaches. Imagine the relationships that form when you work out with friends, encouraging them to push harder, or when you play together after a long day on the stand, or stand together in support when a rescue fails. The intensity of shared experiences heightens emotions, as the reality — not simply the concept — of having one another’s back is played out again and again.
We each have our stories, the rescues that never leave us. In the summer of 1981, I was the head of Ocean Services, an independent service with stands in Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head. Fifteen guards worked for me, most of whom were longtime surfers drawn to a job that required them to be in the ocean on big-wave days. My position required me to patrol the area between our stands in a rescue truck, acting as backup when one of my guards went in after someone, which meant that by the time I arrived on the scene, my guard had already pulled the victim to safety and I was mostly left with first aid, if necessary.
But on this July day, the situation was vastly different. A mother had gone in after her 6-year-old, who’d been pulled into deep water by the surf break. Their location was a no-man’s-land of sorts, between one of our stands and one staffed by Kill Devil Hills guards. When I arrived, five more people had gone in to try to assist the mother. Every one of them was now in trouble.
I started for the one farthest out, the mother. She’d been in the water the longest. My guard went for the next one, and several surfers who were fortunately in the area went after the others. I reached the mom, but she was underwater: Her son was standing on her so as not to drown. While pulling her in, a surfer assisted. I was able to get her on his board and began to ventilate through mouth-to-mouth. On shore, a doctor, who happened to have been on the beach, and I did CPR for almost an hour, until Sanderson’s helicopter landed on the beach and the EMTs took over.
The mother did not survive.
Was it traumatic? The looks on faces surrounding me, my desperation to save that mother and child … I was trained to do it, and I did it, that time and several others during that same summer. But I still wonder about that family, how they healed. I myself healed with the support of fellow guards who’d shared the experience.
Most who spend lazy days on an Outer Banks beach, sunning and diving into the waves, will never experience a situation that requires assistance from one of these Ocean Rescue guards. The most attention anyone pays to them is waving as they climb their stand or drive by on their ATV patrol. Until something happens, you take your safety for granted. Then, after you’re securely back on shore, perhaps you’ll consider, for the first time, that the person who just rescued you does so many times a summer. He plunges headfirst into the waves and rip currents that got a teenager in trouble. She expertly handles the neck injury of the vacationer who dove in and hit bottom. You’ll realize how they work, this well-honed team that ensures survival.
And then, send up a silent prayer of thanks for the training, perseverance, and courage of this remarkable group of dedicated lifeguards. Who watch the waves, and you.