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Wave of Hopefuls Vie to Be Lifeguards

March 21, 1994|MARK LANDSBAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — Another crop of heroes was being harvested at the Newport Pier early Sunday morning.

All that was required of the 55 hopefuls competing for summer lifeguard jobs with the city was the ability to swim like a fish, run like a deer and be as gracious as a church usher.

Only about half of the job-seekers will make it to the payroll. Although it's a summer job, most who make the grade come back year after year.

"It's hard to quit once you start," said Brent Jacobsen, 26, who will only walk away from his job as a lifeguard if he learns he has passed the state bar exam.

Al Irwin, 76, has yet to walk away entirely. He knows the attraction of the sand and surf.

Irwin was pressed into duty as a 14-year-old bystander in 1932 when the bodies of five youngsters had to be retrieved near the mouth of the Santa Ana River. He became a full-time employee the next day and retired from lifeguard duties in his late 60s. But Irwin still volunteers at the annual tryouts.

"That's all I've done all my life--ocean work and swimming," the wiry Irwin said as he waited for the race to begin. Irwin also coached high school and college sports.

Many of the lifeguards are college or even high school students who return to their jobs every year between semesters.

"It gets them through college," Marine Safety Department Lt. Jim Turner said. "You get them four to six years. You really get them at a neat time in their lives. You get them as 16-year-olds and (when they leave the job) they are adults."

About 30 of the 55 lean, young men and women will be selected to work during the summer months at $10.95 an hour. The swimming and running tests are only the beginning. Applicants must also pass a written test and medical evaluation. Lifeguards also must show poise or, as one veteran described it, "good public relations" when dealing with the people they serve.

"It's a good summer job," panted a breathless Jason Klick, 19, the first applicant to emerge from the churning surf after completing an 800-yard swim in just over 14 minutes.

The lifeguards all work for the Newport Beach Marine Safety Department, which increases from 10 year-round employees to about 150 lifeguards during the warm summer months.

Despite the allure of a day in the sun at the beach, this is deadly serious business.

Over the summer hundreds of lives will be saved by the men and women who gathered Sunday on the sand beneath the pier.

Buddy Belshe, 59, retired as a lifeguard in 1987, but like Irwin he too still shows up to help at tryouts. In all his years as a lifeguard, Belshe never got to a swimmer in distress too late.

"I've had unconscious victims, but I have gotten them to come around," Belshe said.

"It's a good feeling to save people," Belshe said. "A lot of times you don't get a 'thank you' because they may be embarrassed. But a lot of times you do. It's pretty rewarding."

Nevertheless, the work is not for everyone.

"It takes dedication--the ability to sit in that tower at all times and still be alert," Irwin said. "When that surf comes up and that tide comes in, some of these guys will make 18 to 20 rescues a day.

"But maybe tomorrow there will be nothing out there, and they still have to be alert."

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