Lifeguards on Duty
The Cape Cod Lifesaving Competition, celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, shines a spotlight on a talented group of athletes tasked with protecting the Cape’s most precious treasure: its beaches
Perhaps nothing is more cherished than a warm summer day on a Cape Cod beach. A kaleidoscope of vacation stories, since turned to memories, frames sunny days with family and carefree moments with friends, against a backdrop of the stunning beauty found at the water’s edge. On any given day across the Cape and Islands, in the summer one can find beachgoers frolicking on the sand or cooling off in the shallows. On the Outer Cape, joyous squeals of children’s laughter resonate up and down the shoreline as their parents relax under the warm rays of the sun, everyone enjoying one of the most precious gems of the United States: the Cape Cod National Seashore.
One warm day in 1973 was no different, when vacationers and locals flocked to the shores of Nauset Beach in Orleans. Beachgoers were drawn by the natural beauty and serenity of Cape Cod’s warm sands and sprawling dunes, ready to shake off the blues of a nor’easter earlier that week. Bronzed lifeguards sat atop their wooden stands, ever watchful for dangerous currents and struggling swimmers, and as they looked on, it became quickly evident that this was no normal day at Nauset. A massive rip current trapped swimmers in its clutches, and the lifeguard team had their hands full rescuing terrified beachgoers. Incident reports detail over 50 rescues made that day, with victims sent to Cape Cod hospital, and had it not been for the lifeguards the outcome may not have been as positive as it turned out. Only a single fatality occurred at the hospital, attributed to a heart attack. The day serves as a jarring reminder of the many dangers of the ocean, but also as a testament to the unparalleled skill and dedication of the Cape’s lifeguards—something that has been acknowledged each year since that fateful day through the annual Cape Cod Lifesaving Competition.
Now in its 45th year, the Cape Cod Lifesaving Competition welcomes lifeguards from across the region to the shores to test their skills, show off their spirit and connect with one another. In all, it’s a fun-filled day with an undertone of seriousness, demonstrating just how physical and truly important the job of a lifeguard is, particularly somewhere like Cape Cod, where the unspoiled majestic beauty provides both pleasure and peril, with a thin line between the two.
“I remember that day at Nauset clearly,” says Greg Johnson. “It’s why I became a lifeguard.” Johnson, who is now in his 41st year as a lifeguard on Orleans’ Nauset Beach, describes how the Lifesaving Competition was traditionally held at Nauset, but over the years became so popular that the organizers decided to include other towns and lifeguard teams across the region. This year, the challenge will be held August 2nd at Harding Beach in Chatham.
“Competition keeps people motivated to train,” explains Gordon Miller, who’s been a Cape Cod National Seashore lifeguard based in Provincetown for 35 years now. “It’s a great time for everyone, and it also gives us the opportunity to get together and not only catch up but talk about different issues.” This year’s competition includes 13 different events—everything from paddleboard and swim rescues to ironman and ironwoman challenges. All of the regional towns that have lifeguards are invited, even some groups from as far as Maine. “It’s all for the kids,” says Miller who no longer competes himself. “I’m like a typical bureaucrat now, dealing with meetings, reports and the organizational side of the job,” he explains with a laugh.
For those who do compete, the yearly event provides them with a goal to work toward, something to keep them training and excited about the job even after long, exhausting days in the sun. “You get excited about these competitions. They give you something to shoot for and a reason to train instead of sitting in a chair, staring at the ocean for eight hours,” says Johnson, who explains that lifesaving competitions are popular across the globe. “It helps lifeguards get used to their equipment and learn how to actually rescue someone in a hurry. The Lifesaving Competition is what’s kept me in this job for decades, and I don’t think I would have lasted that long without it.”
Johnson fondly describes the Lifesaving Competition as “a fitness carnival,” a celebration of the athleticism of the dedicated lifeguards that work across the region. “They’re athletes,” says Johnson of the lifeguards. “Many of them even compete in various sports in college.” After all, who better to protect the beaches than those who are passionate about maintaining a peak level of physical fitness, have a strong connection to the ocean, and an intrinsic inclination toward safety?
With the shark population on the rise around Cape Cod, the Lifesaving Competition has had to combat more issues than ever and ask hard questions about how best to make the event safe and fun for everyone. “I strongly believe in the event,” says Johnson. “I believe in the athleticism and the motivation that it encourages.” And that’s exactly the type of attitude that keeps our beaches safe—a commitment that demonstrates that there are better solutions than being afraid of the water. Participants are people that fully understand and accept the risks of the ocean—sharks, rip tides or anything else—and they choose to protect the environment and the people that want to enjoy it, and face those risks head on as they use their knowledge and expertise to keep Cape Cod’s beaches the shining destination they’ve become known as throughout the world. No matter what Mother Nature has in store, competitions like this one keep lifeguards prepared and ready to do their jobs, because after all, without lifeguards who embrace the responsibilities of the beaches and train in the ocean, who’s left to keep beachgoers safe?
“It’s a family,” says Johnson about being a lifeguard. “You sit in a chair with another lifeguard for six or eight hours and talk about everything.” A true testament to how the beach brings people together, especially on the Cape, Johnson explains that one of the best parts of his job is the people he gets to connect with on the beach or at the annual competition—the very same people he and other lifeguards work to protect.
“The other week I saw people who we used to rent from in the ’60s. The woman was amazed I remembered her name because she remembers me in diapers,” says Johnson with a laugh. “I get to see people from throughout my lifetime at Nauset. And who doesn’t want to be on the beach all day?”
“The beach is like my second home. Maybe even my first,” adds Miller with a grin. “I love the physical beauty of the seashore and the people I work with.”
At the Lifesaving Competition, that sense of family is overwhelmingly evident. “A lot of it is about the older guards sharing the knowledge that we’ve gained over the years,” says Johnson about his involvement with the young competitors. “We instruct them on how to make a Line and Reel Rescue, a paddleboard rescue, how to competently administer oxygen and defibrillators, and when we’re training throughout the year we work closely with the fire department to learn things like how to apply a tourniquet. Now that we have sharks, the training has shifted and we have a heavy focus on first aid in addition to water safety.”
“Our lifeguards are trained to be fit,” says Miller. “Nothing helps that more than the Lifesaving Competition.”
More than simply a celebration of the region’s incredible beaches, the Annual Lifesaving Competition is a tool to keep the region’s lifeguards strong, healthy and excited about keeping the beaches safe. While the changing times come with an increase in predators and a heightened awareness of the dangers the ocean has to offer, it’s also important to recognize and respect the people that have chosen to combat those dangers. The job of a lifeguard is to respect everything that Mother Nature throws their way, to recognize, acknowledge and assess the risks, and then to find intelligent ways to minimize the consequences while providing a safe and successful outcome, all while hopefully educating the public to adopt appropriate responses to the evolving landscape. Our safety and guidance at the beach starts with them. Keeping lifeguards trained and competitive, as the Lifesaving Competition has done for 45 years, is the best way to make sure they’re ready to protect the beaches that we all love as much as they did on that day in 1973. As Johnson puts it, the Annual Lifesaving Competition is quite simply, “The highlight of the summer.”