The word “Baywatch” probably evokes memories of the television series from 1989 to 1999 that idealized Southern California lifeguards. There is a real Baywatch that started as rescue boats to protect the whole South Bay in the early 1900’s. Lifeguarding has evolved through time to include the beach and, as recent as a couple of years ago, electric beach vehicles. Today, Baywatch del Rey patrols from the El Segundo border to Venice, but according to Ocean Rescue Boat Captain Rob Pelkey, will go beyond if needed.
A typical day starts out with a routine daily boat check. Each day each boat is run by a different crew. On patrol the lifeguards check weather conditions and surf to get a feel for waves and swell size because there are swimmers and surfers year-round. There are mooring buoys at designated areas where patrol boats are tied up and the lifeguards do continuous boat maintenance while waiting to respond to a call.
Patrolling is two-fold. The main patrol is along the shoreline where they do ocean rescues with the beach lifeguards. Offshore distress calls include incidences with the occasional surfer or swimmer and boats. In the winter waves can reach 10 to 15 feet and rip currents form in certain areas like the breakwater and pier and people in the water can be pulled out further. The rescue boats can back into five or six feet in water, put the people on the boat and take them to a safer area on the beach. Spring a is a big time for boat rescues because boats have been sitting around all winter and they are taken out for the first time and there may be maintenance issues which result in malfunctions and help is needed to get back to shore.
Providing backup is also an important function of the rescue boats. All the tower lifeguards are part of the permanent staff and each has a vehicle. They will respond in those vehicles and call the rescue boats for backup. Another backup unit is the rescue vehicle which comes out of the lifeguard headquarters. “So, once we determine what the rescue is – if it’s ocean surf rescue or medical aid – we provide backup by watching the area while they are performing the rescue or first aid on the beach,” says Captain Pelkey.
The rescue boat lifeguards do a lot of training with the US Coast Guard, specifically helicopter hoist practice from boat to helicopter. There is also a dive team to assist the US Coast Guard with their search and rescue either from shore or from a boat. All of the permanent lifeguards are certified scuba divers and have that type of equipment on board.
Also on board are the necessities to provide firefighting capabilities and first aid for basic emergency medical treatment. There are no paramedic vessels on the mainland – only Catalina. “We’re trained the same,” says Captain Pelkey. “The only difference is as a paramedic you have a little more to work with (like drugs and IV).” Captain Pelkey is a qualified paramedic and while he doesn’t provide those duties with Baywatch del Rey, he will do relief work on Catalina for someone who is sick or on vacation. If a paramedic is needed in this area, that person will come on a Los Angeles County Fire Department fire boat.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s Harbor Patrol detail is part of the mix that makes up the rescue teams. The biggest difference is that they are the law enforcement arm too. “If we see a violation of a boating code, we will enforce that,” says Captain Pelkey. “If someone keeps repeating it, we will call the Sheriff.”
The lifeguards go out on their boats in all types of weather and high waves and gale force can make it quite dangerous. When asked if they ever capsize, Captain Pelkey replied that they don’t practice turning over and stay upright by always doing the right thing.
Also dangerous are different situations the lifeguards find themselves in. Lifeguard Bill Wilson remembers a May Day call for a sailboat going out to sea by itself. He and his captain responded and found the boat about ten miles out. The motor was running and the sails were up and it was just moving on its own. The captain got next to the boat, Bill jumped on and he recalls landing like a sack of potatoes. “The wind was blowing pretty hard,” he says. “That was a scary moment.”
Captain Pelkey has suggestions for water safety. When on the beach always make sure to swim near a lifeguard tower that is open and ask the lifeguard for water condition information that changes daily. When boating, it is important to know about weather conditions and, of course, always wear a lifejacket.
Few people get to go to a job they really love. Captain Pelkey who has been a lifeguard for 25 years thinks it’s the greatest job in the world. “It gets you on the water every day,” he says. What’s not to like about that?