The story ran in the Aug. 9, 1926 edition of the Pablo Beach News, but it might have appeared in any year since. It’s the same beach, the same runouts, the same corps of volunteer lifeguards plucking bathers from the still-treacherous Atlantic. They even wear the same tank-top-style suits — which, fortunately, haven’t been made of wool since 1948.
The Jacksonville Beach American Red Cross Volunteer Lifesaving Corps has been chalking up cases of rescued beachgoers since April 1912 — 1,511 lives and counting. Indeed, Corps lore has it that they haven’t had a death yet, in more than 1,361,132 volunteer hours. (Records confirm none since 1968.)
A volunteer lifeguard, known as a “surfman” (even the women), is stationed at every chair on Jax Beach each Sunday and holiday. All other days, the city of Jacksonville Beach staffs the chairs, hiring from within the Corps lifeguard squad. “We’re the training arm of the Jacksonville Beach lifeguards,” explains Corps Board Chairman Maurice Rudolph, while giving a tour of the iconic station at the terminus of Beach Boulevard. “On Sundays and holidays, we work for free on behalf of the city to protect the public.”
It’s a tradition, and the lifeguards take tradition seriously — including the white-striped, tank-top suits. “We wear the old-style uniforms,” says Rudolph, “in respect for our forefathers who built this place.”
In the middle of the last century, there were dozens of American Red Cross Volunteer Life Saving Corps around the country. Today, the Jax Beach Corps is the only one left. And on April 29, when they open the beach with a freshly trained group of between 80 and 100 guards, including perhaps 15 surfmen recruits, they’ll be celebrating their 100th birthday. They will also celebrate the rededication of the newly expanded and restored station, built in 1947. An October gala will cap the centennial celebration.
That this Corps is thriving — with a winter recruiting class more than twice the normal turnout — while others have died out is a testament to both the enduring allure of the lifeguard job (and certain associated perks, like the $50-a-year beach dorms) and the respect accorded the job. But more than that, the Corps’ longevity is rooted in a studied devotion to tradition that bends with the times but never breaks.
This Ain’t No P
Near the bottom of the battleship-gray staircase in the lifeguard station is a framed and fading 1939 magazine article hung on the wall. Rudolph calls it “one of the highpoints in our history,” when the guards were featured on the cover of Life Magazine. “We were the predominant experts in ocean rescue and open water lifesaving,” explains Rudolph. “The Red Cross always did pools, but we developed all these techniques for open water rescue in waves and currents.”
Another couple of steps, another article — this one about a $190,000 donation from a foundation whose family members were saved by Corps guards. That’s a nice tip for an organization whose one constant over 100 years has been a shortage of funds, and which gets 80 percent of its funding from the community.
The chronicle continues in the classroom/club area, which is filled with a photographic history of the club and features a red-felt pool table in the back. “I remember looking at these pictures when I was 16, and these guys were like heroes,” Rudolph muses.
He points to himself on the wall, from the winter class of 1987. “Everything is by seniority,” says Rudolph, whose Corps’ nickname (every surfman has one) is “Space Cowboy” and whose recruitment year is W ’87. “You come in here, say you’re Winter of ’87, and you get the pool table,” he says with a grin.
Back in 1911, there were no guards, just lots of drownings ?at what was then known as Pablo Beach. So in 1912, Clarence H. McDonald and Dr. Lyman G. Haskell started the United States Volunteer Life Saving Corps, Station No. 1. By 1916, Miami and other seaport cities were studying and emulating the Pablo Beach Corps. Drownings declined, and beach recreation increased.
In 1919, Jacksonville surfman Henry Walters invented a lifesaving device that would be named for him — the Walters Torpedo Buoy. The design is still used by lifeguards around the world, and it allows guards to save people without getting close enough for them to claw onto their heads. Previously, lifeguards used a donut ring that was a drag on swimming and limited in the number of people it could support. Walters’ welded double-pointed torpedo was sleek in the water and could support six people.
In 1968, surfman John Landon went after a group of swimmers being swept out to sea and got all five of them on his Walters Torpedo Buoy — including a twentysomething guy, who, like many proud and foolish victims, initially refused Landon’s offer of help. Surfman Carl McKenney told about giving mouth-to-mouth on his buoy to a drowning sailor, recalling, “It was like just one breath and the guy threw up on me and came back around.” The sailor wrapped his arms and legs around the buoy and rode it like a pogo stick all the way in, which wasn’t proper technique, but it worked.
Lifesaving takes many forms in the Corps, but Rudolph observes that there is just one thing that sustains the group. “[Tradition is] what keeps this volunteer organization alive.”
Part of maintaining that tradition falls to “Gus” Hapsis, a 79-year-old former surfman, who manages the Corps archives in the basement of the Red Cross’ Riverside headquarters. Brown-bagging his lunch, he spends his day organizing years of news clippings and documents. And he cross-checks other mentions of the Corps, including Tim Tebow’s recollection in his book “Through My Eyes” of being rescued by a volunteer lifeguard at Jax Beach after being caught in a riptide. Tebow credits the “close call” with inspiring him to come to Jesus. Hapsis hasn’t yet found a record of that rescue.
The work is often entertaining, like when Hapsis came across the report about a Saturday night search at the old dance pier for a woman thought to have drowned. The guards fanned out into the surf and found the woman, “wearing only a bra and step-in.” After they revived her by resuscitation, the report says, “the thanks she gave was a good cussing out of the guards, because it was not her desire to be saved, and they had ‘butted in.’ ”
Aside from amusing stories, the index of newspaper headlines brings old beach scenes to life.
1913: End of First Year — 22 People Saved, 23 Treated with First Aid
1920: Lifeguards Drag 15 From Surf in One Day: Busiest Day in 10-Year Existence … volunteer lifesavers covered in glory and
1928: Huge Crowd at Beach. One Spectacular Rescue by New Surfman. Pair Saved … towed them to shore amid cheers of the crowd
1943: Life-Saving Corps Depleted by Men in War Service. Seeking recruits for duty. Age limit lowered
1945: Tots Rescued by Red Cross Lifesavers. Parents of six children saved … expressed deep apprec
1967: 29 Pulled From Sea at Beach
Hapsis says the most rescues he personally saw was in 1955, when he and other surfmen saved 15 in one day. He believes the local Corps’ one-day record is 50.
A Few Good Boyz
From the start, the volunteer corps was based on military discipline and a Navy command structure. In the past, any surfman could blackball a prospective recruit. Today, if you pass the requirements, you’re in the Corps, which is how the lifeguards refer to themselves in public. (In member slang, they’re “the boyz,” a term even female surfmen use.) The group demands eight years of service — every Sunday and holiday — after which you can retire as a member for life, enjoying the facilities and camaraderie, and bumping young pups off the pool table.
Back in the day, recruits went through hell. Today, they go through refined hell. They don’t endure traditional hazing, like the old belt gauntlet on the beach — the final initiation in which guard members lined up and hit each recruit surfman with his belt as they passed, before falling baptismally into the water. (That particular tradition ended some time in the ’80s.) Still, it’s like boot camp, with lots of physical conditioning and psychological challenges.
“Everyone hears terrible stories about how the lifeguards are too harsh with recruits,” says 29-year-old retired member Jelisse Marrero, W ’01. “And when I went through class, I thought that myself: ‘What’s wrong with these people? Why are they being so mean?’ “
“The reason why,” Marrero continues, “is because … people have to have that mental focus in order to do what you’re supposed to, while people are all around you screaming and yelling.”
Marrero, whose nickname was J. Lo (“It’s the way I look”), learned to take it — and eventually to dish it out. As a Corps instructor, she earned a reputation as a hard ass. And she pulled no punches when teaching recruits water confidence.
“We throw them into the water and do a lot of active drowning-victim scenarios, a panicked person. And you exaggerate it,” says Marrero. “Some people think it’s wrong. But you need that training when you have people who are so scared — I’ve had them just jump on me in the water.” Marrero, who didn’t swim until she went out for the Corps, says the key is developing the sense that water is where you’re safest. “Once that [drowning] person knows that you are under control, they start assessing the situation in a less-panicked state and realize they are going to be OK.”
Surfmen say it’s hard to get in the Corps, and even harder to stay in. Giving up every holiday and Sunday for eight years with no pay is a serious commitment, even if one of the perks is a dirt-cheap beach dorm. “The training winds recruits uptight so they are ready to go,” says Rudolph. “If not, we get rid of them within the first month, usually.”
Not every 16-year-old newbie proves able to focus amid the distractions of crowds, social life and admiring, scantily clad members of the opposite sex. Life-guarding remains a great way to hook up. And the Corps’ reputation for having a good time off duty is legendary. Military-style discipline comes into play not just in the training, but as a means of keeping surfmen on the straight and narrow.
“All employers have trouble with 16-year-olds showing up: We don’t,” says Rudolph. “Any public discredit, they know without a shadow of a doubt that they will be discharged. You see the guy on the tower next to you talking to someone for a long period, you tell him in the truck: ‘Hey, man, watch your water.’ It only takes once.”
The older surfmen who stick around are the glue that hold it together, says Rudolph. He was a geeky boy from Costa Rica having trouble with the culture and his accent when he tried out for the Corps. “I had an older guy, 27, as my mentor. He helped me out with many things, made sure I stayed in school and went to college.”
George Paugh (“Coach”), a 69-year-old retired surfman, was manning the radio room on the day Rudolph gave the station tour. Paugh is resident coach at the station, trainer of the trainers (he coached swimming, football and wrestling at Fletcher High) and he heads up the all-important Junior Lifeguard Corps, a series of summer camps that groom recruits and is a major source of income. He once rescued five people from the same runout while out surfing on his day off.
“I’ve been doing this since the summer of ’64,” says Paugh. “It’s fun. I get to go out surfing, be in the water. The people here are great to be around, they’re good people.”
View from the Tow
Up the station’s narrow winding staircase, at the top of the red tower, is the hot seat of the organization: The Peg. From here, a surfman surveys the entire coverage area. On a busy Sunday, 70,000 people may unload onto Jax Beach. One lifeguard can be responsible for 1,000 in his or her area.
“Every tower [lifeguard chair] is in a different position, and they all have traditional names of what was there in old days. Like Mermaid, North Beach, North North, Sea Ranch, George Washington and Surf Motel,” says Rudolph, surveying an empty Tuesday morning beach on a grey day. “Working up here, you have to have the names of all 30 towers memorized and their location. If a tower goes down or a flag goes down, you have to relay that to the station.”
A flag-signaling system backs up the radio system. To keep mentally alert, lifeguards rotate towers every hour, a practice unique to the Corps. The cardinal rule is simple: A good lifeguard is a dry lifeguard. Sometimes that means calling people out of the water before trouble — or a runout — takes them.
“You have to be conscientious and very knowledgeable of the ocean and its hazards,” says Paugh. “You also need to have a keen observation of people, knowing which ones would be more likely to get in danger quicker. You’re assessing all that from your tower.”
One of the most frustrating and frequent situations is a CSP or a PSC. “Child Seeking Parent or Parent Seeking Child,” says Paugh. “Parents expect everyone else to watch their child. They’ll come up and say, ‘My kid’s missing, he was right here in the water just a minute ago.’ And we’ll find them a mile and a half down the beach.”
Current Captain Taylor (“Wild Card”) Anderson had a memorable PSC with an inconsolable, unhelpful mother slapping the ocean, sure her child had drowned, something many parents immediately assume has happened. A crowd gathered around Anderson and the distraught woman. Then another lifeguard broke through, handing the found child to the mother. “The whole crowd around us started clapping. I didn’t know what else to do,” says Anderson, “so I just started flexing my biceps. It was a fun ending to what was becoming a very big scene.”
Occasionally, lifeguards need help, too. “One time we were closing down, and these guys were drunk and trying to climb my tower to get me. It was such a nightmare,” says Marrero. “I was beating them down with my umbrella until the lifeguard truck came and the boyz grabbed me.”
Who’s Your Surfman?
While surfmen will always come to one another’s aid, the exclusivity of the group has been a defining characteristic — and sometimes a sore point. Women weren’t permitted into the Corps for most of its existence; in the ’40s, a separate group of female lifeguards started their own beach rescue unit. In later years, the public began questioning the all-male policy, but it wasn’t until 1998 that the Corps scraped together $300,000 for a female dorm and the age of girl boyz began. Sort of.
“It wasn’t because they didn’t like females, it was more like, ‘You can’t do this, you’re a girl,’ ”?says Marrero, who retired in 2009. “I got that pretty much my whole career in the Corps.”
For Marrero, such attitudes were the dark side of the Corps’ vaunted respect for customs. “There was constantly a fight for power,” she says. “Not that they thought I wasn’t competent, it was just tradition. It was very annoying for me. I was constantly fighting that, especially with the older members. I made it my mission to prove them all wrong.”
She did, becoming an instructor and helping revamp the training program. When Marrero returned in 2011, she says, “It seemed like there was an explosion of female lifeguards, which is great. … The new female guards didn’t see any of what I had. And they were just like me, tough as nails.”
Eyes on the Horiz
Saving a life is pretty heady stuff. Capt. Anderson had a memorable save in 2007 at the pier. (Insider tip: Don’t swim next to the pier, people; it’s where runouts live). He went in to save a boy and his father, and when he got to the boy, he didn’t see the father.
“I look into the water and see the dad’s hands in the kid’s armpits, holding him up as he bounces off the bottom. I pulled them both onto the buoy and they ended up being OK,” says Anderson. “That last-ditch self-dedication of the father really stuck with me. I guess you could say I saved two lives. It’s what I’m expected to do. It’s a cool feeling, but you go on your case, resolve it and then just climb back up on your tower.”
Anderson says the Corps’ challenge is finding a way to hold on to tradition even as it adapts to changing times. “For the next 100 years, we can’t let volunteerism get lost in the mix. Our challenge is to reinvent ourselves. How can we improve life guarding? How can we push ourselves back to the forefront?”
As part of that effort, they’re ramping up their public outreach and teaching people in lower-income communities how to swim. The Corps is involved with Lifeguards Without Borders, an organization co-founded by former surfman and Jacksonville physician Andrew Schmidt. “We go to Latin America and instill our volunteerism and help train lifeguards,” says Anderson, noting that 97 percent of drownings occur in Third World countries. “Lifeguards Without Borders is a fledgling program, and guys from Jacksonville Beach are the core.”
Throughout its 100 years, the Corps’ mission has remained simple: Save people from drowning. And while some swimmers do some very stupid things, Marrero — who’s saved several lives as a surfman — insists you never blame them. “They’re coming into an environment they don’t know,” she says. “You just can’t have a judgmental attitude, because you never know when it might be you.”