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 with rescue boats to protect the entire South Bay in the early 1900s. 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, the agency will go beyond if needed.
A typical day starts out with a routine daily boat check. Each boat is run by a different crew each day. The lifeguards on patrol 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 continuing boat maintenance while waiting to respond to a call.
Patrolling is two-fold. The main patrol is along the shoreline where the lifeguards perform 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 ten to 15 feet high and rip currents form in certain areas like the breakwater and pier, causing people in the water to be pulled out further. The rescuers can back their boats up five or six feet in the water, put the people on the boat and take them to a safer area on the beach.
Spring is a big time for boat rescues because boats that have been sitting around all winter and are taken out for the first time may have maintenance issues resulting in malfunctions, causing them to need help getting back to shore.
Providing backup is also an important function of the rescue boats. All of 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 Rob 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 its search and rescue either from shore or from a boat. All of the permanent lifeguards are certified scuba divers and have diving 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 on Catalina Island.
“We’re trained the same,” says Pelkey. “The only difference is as a paramedic, you have a little more to work with (like drugs and IV).”
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. Paramedics who are needed in this area will arrive 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 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 winds can make it quite dangerous. When asked if boats ever capsize, Pelkey replied that lifeguards don’t practice turning over and stay upright by “always doing the right thing.”
Lifeguards can find themselves in different dangerous situations. 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, Wilson jumped on and he recalls landing like a sack of potatoes. “The wind was blowing pretty hard,” he says. “That was a scary moment.”
Pelkey has suggestions for the public regarding 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. 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?”