At Dunes Beach, a red flag whipped in the wind, warning the public of high surf and possible rip currents. That did not deter the Half Moon Bay Junior Lifeguards, however. On June 19, about 100 youth, ages 9 to 14, bobbed about in the surf, surrounded by lifeguards and youth aides, in the first week of camp this summer.
California State Parks has been running the Junior Lifeguards program on the Coastside for more than a decade. Every summer, local kids spend five hours every weekday on the beach, swimming, body surfing, playing games and learning ocean safety skills. The program runs two four-week sessions each year.
Peter Lundgard has been a lifeguard with the State Parks for the last seven years and has been running the Junior Lifeguards program for the last four.
He said that ocean safety is a big focus of the program.
“Here, even in the summer, there are big waves, strong currents and cold water,” he said. “Our main goal is to let kids be safe and have fun in the ocean.”
He said the kids didn’t even get into the water one day because the surf was too rough. Instead, they stayed on the beach, playing games, practicing skills and learning about ocean hazards. The next day, they were ready to hit the surf.
Lundgard said that most games they play at camp are competitive and incorporate lifeguarding skills. One favorite is called “water flags,” which is an aquatic version of musical chairs. The instructors throw a bunch of tennis balls out into the surf, and the kids dive through the waves to retrieve them. There are not quite as many balls as kids, however, so a few participants are eliminated each round until there is a winner.
It may seem like just a game to the kids, but they are actually practicing important lifeguarding skills like scanning the surf, moving quickly to a target and adapting to changing conditions.
Water flags is a favorite activity of 11-year-old Elena Dardanelle, who was attending Junior Lifeguards for the first time with her 9-year-old brother, Leo, and his best friend, Zach Broad.
“My mom said we should do Junior Guards,” said Leo, munching on snacks after a bout of body surfing. “She said it is the best camp for a good price. Then I found out my best friend was going there. I was like, ‘Yeah!’”
Broad’s favorite activity was water development time.
“WDT. Basically, free time in the water,” he said.
“I also like body surfing,” chimed in Leo.
He added that he gets a lot of exercise at this camp. “I’m exhausted when I get home,” he said. “I sleep really well at night.”
Lundgard said it’s not uncommon for a kid to join at 8 or 9, go all the way through the program, become a youth aide and then try out to become a lifeguard.
Jake Hessen is on that trajectory at age 15. He’s participated in the program every summer for the last six years and now is back for his first year as a youth aide.
His goal is to try out next year to become a lifeguard.
“This is for community service hours,” he said. “Next year will be for a paycheck.”
Lundgard said that lifeguarding is a great summer job for teens. Not only is it fun to be active outside on the beach, it also teaches important life skills.
“A lifeguard has to talk to a lot of different people, work with kids, command a presence and keep the whole beach safe,” he said.
He said that the Junior Lifeguard program also teaches kids important life skills.
“These kids are on their summer break, but they are learning so much right now,” he said. “The ocean can teach you a lot about yourself. It can give you confidence, but it can also smash you down. It is a good combination of both of those things.”