HUNTINGTON BEACH — For $10.83 an hour, it's one of California's most coveted jobs.
But the opportunity to experience its fringe benefits--bronzing in the sun, meeting fans and becoming life-saving heroes--comes with a price: tryouts.
For would-be lifeguards, it's a test of physical strength, mental endurance and ocean smarts that close to 100 Californians attempted to pass Saturday, wanting to be named the state's new rookie class.
Under a gray early morning sky, 94 hopefuls quickly emerged from the cold water of Huntington State Beach, shivering as a seemingly relentless wind nipped at their bodies.
The swimmers, identified by a number scrawled in black marker on their left hands, had just completed a 1,000-yard ocean swim in under 20 minutes, the first of three grueling tests.
"It was such a long and tough swim," said 16-year-old Summer Bernstein, a Redondo Beach resident trying out for one of the approximately 40 jobs available along the California coast.
Mike Silvestri, coordinator of the tryouts and a lifeguard supervisor along the San Diego coast, said the 61-degree water was cool for the participants, but it could have been worse.
"The cold water does affect their performance," Silvestri said. "But it's not too bad. We've done this in 50-degree weather."
After the swim test, only 63 competitors were left to continue and face the other two tests, one of which included a 200-yard run followed by a 400-yard swim and capped off with a 200-yard run. That test had to be completed under 10 minutes.
Bernstein did not make the cut after the swim. But she was satisfied with her performance.
"I'm proud of myself for trying," said Bernstein, who will return to her job as a junior lifeguard.
The remaining hopefuls raced down the beach, rounded a flag 200 yards away, dived into the water and swam toward a floating marker 200 yards away and then returned to shore.
Watching some of the possible new recruits from shore, Silvestri commented that the top third of the pack looked strong, the middle of the group "decent.".
"But it's really tough to get a true reading," Silvestri said. "There's no surf at all. This is considered a lake day."
Silvestri said since Huntington Beach faces south, waves on average reach four to eight feet. The swimmers Saturday were facing waves less than one foot.
Ellen Leppek of Santa Monica finished in the middle of the group.
"I am completely spent!" she said, gasping for breath. Leppek was one of six women competing in the second round. "I am wiped out. There are a lot of younger people!"
For Alexandra Konok, who placed among the top finishers, the process is tougher here than in Canada, where she spent four years as a lifeguard.
"It is definitely more competitive here," the 21-year-old Konok said.
All 63 competitors advanced to the final round, the interview, which consisted of an oral examination about the ocean, basic skills and rescue procedures.
They were divided up into five groups, according to the area in California they wanted to be stationed. The openings are in San Diego, San Clemente, Huntington Beach, Santa Monica and Malibu.
Silvestri said he plans to hire 50 to 55 recruits.
Additional lifeguards are needed because many were transferred to Los Angeles County when the state recently began covering beaches.
For Jarrett Gurewitz, an 18-year-old Huntington Beach resident who made it to the final round, hopes to be a lifeguard in his hometown.
"This is good placement and good timing," Gurewitz said.
Those selected will undergo a rigorous training program from July 26 to Aug. 1.
"Not everyone makes it through training," said Dan Lineback, another lifeguard supervisor. "We'll just have to wait and see."