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Scenic and beautiful, Malibu has a lot to offer for both residents and visitors. Chances are it will not take anyone too long to catch a glimpse of the glorious Pacific Ocean that gives Malibu its front yard. The oceans presence gives many aspects of the area its identity, and contributes large aspects to people's lifestyles. Lifeguarding is one of those lifestyles directly incorporated with the ocean, and has a large working force in Malibu that deals with thousands of people on a regular basis. Jake Snyder works in the northern end of Malibu for California State Parks, and here are a few answers to some questions we asked him:
1. How long have you been lifeguarding and what is your background with the ocean?
This was my fifth year as a beach lifeguard. Growing up my parents were always taking me to Zuma or Leo Carrillo and getting me in the ocean.When I was a kid I learned to surf while involved in the junior lifeguard program at Leo Carrillo where I participated for years. I was finally hired by the State Parks for rookie school in Huntington Beach and have been working the summers since. I pursued the sea in college through my studies at The California Maritime Academy and earned a BS in Marine Transportation and a license to navigate merchant ships on the high seas. The ocean is the common denominator in what I have done in life.
2. How is the lifeguard operation set up and where do you fall into the operation?
Our operation revolves around the tower guard. They are the front line responders in emergencies, and often the only link between a rescue or medical aid and lifesaving back up. In my first four years of lifeguarding, I worked in these towers. This year I was a “unit guard,” meaning I operated the lifeguard trucks and sometimes the rescue jet ski. Our duty is to support the tower guards in all they do, from ensuring their medical equipment is always stocked, to giving breaks, and most importantly, backing them up when they make rescues and treat injuries.
Our lifeguard operation is not exactly what comes to mind when you think beach lifeguard. Instead of the endless sandy beaches and lifeguard towers placed at intervals, our beaches are more of a series of coves and pockets. In addition to strong rip currents and the surf, towers must be vigilant of the challenges posed by the local environment, from dangerous rocks and steep drop-offs to powerful shorepound and even caves. Each of our towers has its own set of unique challenges, and each tower shift requires attention to detail and adapting to not only the conditions of the water that day but how those conditions will work on the geographical features.
3. What made you work for the State Parks in Malibu?
Everybody loves working for the State Parks in Malibu because of the people, culture, and the beautiful coastline. The “Mugu Crew” is a collection of some really incredible watermen and women and eclectic personalities. We strive for a culture that embodies the traditions that have been passed down by generations of lifeguards who value surfing, bodysurfing, and pursuing improvement. And, of course, the amazing twelve miles of coast between El Matador to Mugu Beach could not be a more lovely place to call home.
4. Describe a typical day at work for you.
A typical work day begins with an early surf or workout with fellow lifeguards. We might paddle out somewhere that isn’t too crowded, then go grab a breakfast burrito and something for lunch together. Before the towers open the unit guards are arriving at the shop to get a lifeguard truck ready for a ten hour patrol. This entails going through all of the lifesaving equipment to make sure all is stocked and ready for what the day may bring. After calling into dispatch that we are on duty, we make a round to all the towers to check in and ensure their equipment is properly stocked. Then we might park at a spot that will likely bring trouble, perhaps near a rip current, or between towers where the shorepound can wreak havoc on children. When a tower calls in to the dispatch that they are on a rescue, we respond by going to that location, ready to either hit the water to assist with the rescue or assume their duties while they are out. Finally, in addition to assisting towers with rescues and medicals, the unit guards are often first responders to vehicle and cyclist accidents on PCH. It is a little known fact that lifeguard units will also respond to emergencies that develop for hikers and cyclists in the hills of the Santa Monica Mountains.
5. What is your favorite part of lifeguarding?
I love that lifeguarding gives me a sense of value in our community. I feel like I can make an impact on the lives of people who visit the beach through education and prevention, especially when I can make a lifesaving rescue or medical aid. People come from all over the world to see our beautiful beaches, and it is gratifying to see these folks recreating happily, and when they thank us for a job well done. Doing this with a crew of likeminded people creates an amazing work community that more closely resembles a brotherhood than any other job I have had.
6. What is the most challenging part of lifeguarding?
In any given day of work, you might encounter a situation you’ve never seen before, let alone imagined. One week you might have a car in the water, another you might be helping fight a fire in an RV, and yet another you might launch a jet ski to assist with a vessel in distress. Beyond these complex rescues are the situations where you must work with park visitors. All walks of life come to the beach, and engaging this diverse population properly requires high levels of people skills and the ability to put yourself in their shoes to convey my message of safety. Work is exciting when you have constant novelty.
7. What is the most memorable rescue you have made?
I was off duty for one of the more critical rescues I have made. I was surfing Ocean Beach in San Francisco in the fall and had just paddled in to fetch a bigger board, as the surf was overhead and building as the sun set. While I walked back up the beach, I noticed a group of fully dressed adults wading thigh deep in the water. A set of waves had broken on the outside and the water level quickly rose to chest deep. The group noticed this and began walking in, except for one male, who was making no progress against a massive rip current forming behind him. Rip currents at Ocean Beach can run a quarter of a mile out to sea and are very wide, so I knew I had precious little time to react. I had my wetsuit peeled off to my waist for the long walk back and I realized I wouldn’t have time to pull it back on for the rescue, despite the cold water. I told the group on the shore to call 9-1-1 immediately and to flag down the solo and very distant lifeguard truck, but I could see they were too inebriated to do either. I began the notoriously difficult paddle out after the man and I only reached him as we were in the impact zone of the waves on the very outside, just as he was going under. On the long paddle back, I lost my board but a local bodyboarder came to both of our assistance while the San Francisco lifeguards were hitting the water on paddle boards. The entire rescue took about twenty minutes and I was cold but a life had been saved. The very next day a father and son died in the same circumstances.
Lifeguarding changes the way you look at life. It puts you in a mode of looking out for the subtle dangers others might not notice, but that day any off duty lifeguard or surfer in my booties would have done the same. I just happened to be there at the right place and time.
8. Tell me one of your favorite stories from being on the job.
Every day I leave this job with a good story. Whether it was catching a rattlesnake wearing nothing but surf trunks, watching excited children learn from what we teach, or successfully extracting a victim from a traffic collision. Truly the best days are when nothing bad happens, you and your closest friends enjoy working together under a warm sun, and watch some beautiful waves.
9. How did it feel to win lifeguard of the year?
When I look at all of the extraordinary folks I work with today and those who built this agency in the past, I am humbled to have the privilege of being a part of the Mugu Lifeguards. The award itself is a sign that I was able to make a positive contribution to the organization and follow in the traditions it holds dear. I have no prouder accomplishment.
10. What does the future hold for you, in lifeguarding and further into your professional career?
This week I move up north to continue lifeguarding on the Sonoma Coast with fellow guard Dillon Cleavenger. I started lifeguarding this year in February and I’ll be guarding waters north of the Golden Gate into January, so to lifeguard nearly year round is to truly live the dream. In January I ship to Marine Corps Officer Candidate School and from there I will be starting flight school in Florida to become a military pilot. Flying and being a lifeguard were my only childhood dreams-- I am lucky to pursue both.