Help wanted: Lifeguards on the beach
The pressure is on for Moses Hamborg, the youngest of five sons who make up the Huntington Beach clan.
Gus Hamborg, the oldest at 24, has served as a Huntington City Beach seasonal lifeguard for years. Anders, 22, followed his older brother's footsteps and made the cut. Brother Chapman, the 20-year-old artistic son, passed the testing for a summer job, and then Jachin, 19, joined the list of summer cadets.
"Honestly, I'm nervous ... If I don't make it, I'll be pretty embarrassed," said Moses, 17, with a chuckle. "They've all gone through it, and know it's super hard. I'm the last brother – I have to go big."
Moses Hamborg is just one of hundreds of aspiring seasonal lifeguards whose nerves will be on edge in coming weeks as tryouts for summer lifeguard jobs get underway along Orange County's 42 miles of coastline, where applicants will risk hypothermia in chilly mid-50 degree water, along with exhaustion as they sprint on the sand during the early morning testing. Laguna Beach kicked off the testing last Saturday, and the last to hold tryouts will be Seal Beach on April 14.
Lifeguarding at one of the county's beaches during summer months is often viewed as the quintessential California dream, especially for youngsters hoping to score their first job: basking in the sun with the waves crashing in the horizon, while girls in bikinis lounge on the beach getting tans and surfers stroll by with their boards after taking on waves.
That perception couldn't be further from the truth, said Huntington City Lifeguard Lt. Mike Baumgartner.
"That's the stereotype that lifeguards are young people who sit in a tower, get a tan and watch the girls as they walk by. It's anything but that," said Baumgartner. "A lot of times they don't realize the stress level and how difficult it is to stay vigilant the entire shift, while everyone is recreating around you. You have to be constantly aware of what is going on around you. You truly are dealing with life and death situations."
Anywhere from 100 to 150 people will show up during Huntington's tryouts to fill about 15-20 seasonal positions open for new recruits. Returning guards get first dibs on open positions, and also do less intensive, re-qualifying testing.
"It's a job that is rewarding in and of itself, but it is also compatible as a career for students in college," Baumgartner said. "As the job market is tight, there are plenty of people after college having a hard time finding a job. Once you're hired and in good standing, you have a job the next year."
For Baumgartner, a seasonal job ended up as a career. He first got his job as a seasonal lifeguard in the city at 16 in 1981 to help pay for his education. He worked for nine years as a part-time employee before he was able to land a full-time, permanent position.
"It became a passion and love, and that turned into a career I find very rewarding," he said.
Newport Beach also gets a high number of aspiring guards each year, anywhere from 80 to 150 applicants depending on the economy, said Brent Jacobsen, lifeguard battalion chief. Newport typically brings in anywhere from 10 to 25 new hires, depending on how many returning guards decide to come back.
The first thing applicants need to know is what the testing is like, he said. Some people train in swimming pools, and think they will be strong in the ocean swim portion of the test.
"The water temp is 54 degrees. Jumping in the water without a wetsuit – it can really shock you," he said. "Hypothermia can set in quickly. That's one thing they can expect that people don't anticipate."
Doing well on the physical testing doesn't guarantee a job. They must complete more than 100 hours of training, and depending on how they do, they may be offered a job based on what is available.
When they first get on the job, they'll be shadowing more experienced guards, and learn that lifeguarding isn't just about response, but also about customer service, Jacobsen said.
"They become ambassadors of the city," he said. "They could encounter 100,000 people, some asking questions like "where's the bathroom" or "where's the best place to eat."
At the same time they have to be rule enforcers, and manage the various people all coming to one location for various interests: surfers, bodysurfers, fishermen, boaters.
"You become a manager of this scarce resource and try to make sure it is used in a way to safely maximize the benefits of everybody," he said.
On busy days, they might become eyes for the police department and let people know that they can't smoke on the sand, or have dogs on the beach. On crazy holidays such as Fourth of July, they may deal with drunken partiers jumping into the ocean.
"It does provide a unique opportunity for 16-year-olds to have a job that actually gives them a lot of responsibility," Jacobsen said.
There is a downside, he said. You can be exposed to dangerous elements, such as large surf at the Wedge or people who have a disease that can hurt you or an injury that can affect you.
"It's not your ordinary job," he said.
Baumgartner said it can be challenging for young teens who have lived sheltered lives.
"Many haven't dealt with psychiatric problems, and there's a segment of society that comes to the beach to steal backpacks, or expose themselves," he said. "For the new employees, it can be a culture shock if they haven't been exposed to that element in society...maybe someone comes down to commit suicide by drowning. We have to prepare them for that."
Then, there's the actual lifesaving aspect of the job. In Huntington last year there were 4,628 rescues, along with 112,844 preventive actions, the bulk of those happening in summer months.
"To do well in this profession you have to be intelligent, and be able to process a lot of information while remaining calm and prioritize the situations going on and respond appropriately," he said. "It's not just a physical job, mentally it can be quite challenging."
But at the end of the day, you can go home and say: "I made a difference, I saved someone's life."
Like many kids who grow up along the coast, all the Hamborg boys have done junior lifeguards, and Peter has seen his sons grow from their summer jobs as they learn to push through difficult situations.
"You're not just sitting there rubbing on suntan oil and adjusting your sunglasses. That's not the reality of a busy, intense beach like Huntington," he said. "I see the progression – I've seen this four times and hopefully I'll see it with the fifth."
The entire family will be on the sand cheering Moses on the day of the tryouts, standing by with sleeping bags, bottles of warm water and hot tea to help thaw him out between the numbing swims and intense runs.
Gus, Anders, Chapman and Jachin all plan on coming back to their summer lifeguard jobs, meaning all five Hamborg brothers could be all working at the department at the same time, if Moses makes the cut.
"I don't know how it will be. They'll all be my bosses - I'll be scrubbing the toilets and stuff," he said with a laugh.
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