While the sun was high in the sky, chill winds whipped the waves at Dunes Beach in Half Moon Bay. The crisp conditions didn’t deter the Half Moon Bay Junior Lifeguards as they tossed off their uniform gray T-shirts and navy board shorts and charged into the water in just their swimsuits. “Coo-dips” as the frigid swims are affectionately coined are just one of the traditions that make the summer camp such a unique experience for local youth. 

Fresh out of the water, Jesse Brown, in her second year as a Junior Lifeguard, said that before joining the program, she never really swam past the break. 

“Now my favorite part about it is being able to be in the water,” the 12-year-old said. 

California State Parks Junior Lifeguards is an annual summer program held over the course of two, four-week sessions. The program is run by local California State Parks lifeguards and aims to educate local youth about ocean safety, with plenty of fun mixed in. In Half Moon Bay every summer, Dunes Beach serves as base camp for the local chapter of the program.

“I think if you’re a local kid down here, or even if you’re not a local kid but you want to get more experience in the ocean, this camp is the absolute best for it,” said Jakob Meighen, California State Parks lifeguard and Half Moon Bay Junior Lifeguards coordinator. “The ocean skills they learn here … and they just gain so much confidence. I think that really extends to life skills outside of this program. 

“That’s mainly the reason why I love doing this so much, just getting kids stoked on being in the ocean,” he said. 

Meighen, like most State Parks lifeguards, got his start as a junior lifeguard on the coast before deciding to take the next step and become a lifeguard. 

“I really wanted to take that next step in my life in terms of responsibility, and I’ve learned so much through this,” he said. “The biggest takeaway, I’d say, is the leadership skills that I found through running this camp and really coming into my own as a leader.” 

Meighen was one of the original groups of kids to come through the Half Moon Bay program back when it was run by Taylor Riis, who kickstarted the camp on the coast. Meighen said that as coordinator he still pays homage to its beginnings and keeps a lot of the curriculum the same as when the program first started here. 

“We’ve kept a lot of it really similar to how they ran it,” he said. “They were just such an influence on me, so when I took over last year as coordinator, I was like, all right, how can I incorporate a lot of the stuff they did, but also keep it kind of my program.

“Really just seeing Taylor (Riis), and Scott (Spaeth), and John (Anderson) and all of them really is what motivated me to do this,” the former junior guard said. 

Meighen said that a typical day for the junior guards starts with stretching and getting their bodies moving. In the morning they also assess the ocean and beach conditions before embarking on the day’s “Vitamin.” 

The instructors change up the challenges from run-swim-runs to buoy swims to beach runs from Dunes to Surfer’s Beach. 

“It’s so important for these kids to be outside,” said Meighen. “They get to be out in the ocean. They get to run around with their friends.” 

A favorite aspect for both the kids and the instructors is the lineup of beach games Riis devised. 

“(Global Thermal and Happy Shiny) are probably some of the best games that we have down here,” said Meighen. Global Thermal, in which participants fight to take over neighboring forts made of boogie boards and surfboards, and Happy Shiny, a dodgeball-like game with a twist, have been junior guard classics for over a decade. 

“I just love everything we do down here,” said Meighen. 

While the guards put a lot of emphasis on fun, the program is also educational, raising the next generation of environmental stewards and potential lifeguards. Along with time in the water for boogie boarding and surfing, every day the kids gather for lectures from the lifeguards about rescues, first aid and more to educate them on maneuvering ocean conditions, keeping their bodies healthy, and enjoying the natural wonders of their backyard on the coast. 

“That’s why we’re down here,” said Meighen. “We want these kids to progress. That’s honestly one of the most rewarding things.” 

Meighen said that the first week is really where they lay the foundation, teaching the kids skills like high steps and dolphin dives that make getting out past the break easier. 

“Those skills that first week will really help them progress into the buoy swims and the run-swim-runs,” he said. 

The junior lifeguards are split up by age. The youngest are called the jellies, the middle are sand bears, and the oldest, the dukes. The camp runs for kids ages 9 to 15. After that, former campers have an opportunity to try out to become youth aides for the camp. 

“I like that we get to help out, and that there’s a little more freedom in what you get to do,” said Zoe McAnernuy, a first-year youth aide. “I’ve been doing the program since I was, like, 8 years old. My brother is here as a camper this year, and so I just wanted to keep doing it in a capacity that wasn’t just being another older kid again.” 

Each session during the summer also includes field trips to Montara State Beach, Año Nuevo State Reserve, and statewide Junior Lifeguard competitions down in Santa Cruz, Capitola and Manresa. 

For more information about the program, or for those interested in signing up for the coming summer, visit the California Department of Parks and Recreation website or email Meighen at jakob.meighen@parks.ca.gov. 

Emma Spaeth is a staff writer for the Half Moon Bay Review covering community, arts and sports. Emma grew up in Half Moon Bay before earning a bachelor’s degree in public relations from the University of Oregon.

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