Sun, Swim, Save, Repeat
On Isle of Palms, a steadfast crew is keeping their guard up. By Jessie Hazard. Photos by Steve Rosamilia.
The strip of coastline lifeguarded at Isle of Palms County Park is miniscule— only a few hundred feet mark the distance between the two red and yellow flags that delineate the zone. Still, it’s always a busy spot. It’s late September, the last day of lifeguarding season, and a furry of guards move about, dividing their time between monitoring beachgoers and packing away equipment until next year. They’ve just been notified that a church group has called to say they’ll be coming to the park shortly, en masse and without prior notice, to conduct a baptism in the ocean waters. In any other working atmosphere, this kind of news would be enough to buckle production and cause sheer panic among the staff. But the crew just looks at each other, chuckles, and with a big shrug goes back to work. “This is pretty standard stuff for us,” lifeguard Kurtyss Kasten says. “Technically, groups are supposed to arrange anything with a big crowd in advance, but it doesn’t always happen. We’ve got to take everything that can and will happen out here in stride—it’s in the job description.”
Kasten, a 25-year-old James Island native, has been lifeguarding for eight years—for the first four, he was a regular guard, since then he’s moved up to supervisor and on to a training position. He heads a group of impossibly good-looking people, all of them young, lithe, and ripped straight from a sunscreen ad. It’s mildly irritating how effortlessly perfect they all are—until you realize that these physiques are bought and paid for by a lot of hard work.
Besides training at the IOP County Park, Kasten works with the lifeguards on Kiawah Island and at the two stations on Folly Beach. These are also run by the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission and the only three beaches in the area with lifeguards. He regularly drills his teams by sending an assistant out into the water from varying spots—then the assistant pretends to drown. Kasten perches up in a place where he can observe how long it took the guard to notice his faux victim, if they used the right signals in communicating with other guards on the beach, and how long it took them to get to the person. Speed is key here. Taking the time to start up a Jet Ski and whip it out into the water is time a guard usually can’t a ford. Unless the victim is very far from shore, a straight swim is the best way for them to reach someone in distress. The Isle of Palms station doesn’t even have Jet Skis or other powered watercraft ready at its location; it relies almost solely on the swiftness of its staff.
Most importantly, these lifeguards must be acutely aware and willing to hop out of the chair at every whim. Laziness and apathy have no place here. “The lifeguard mantra,” Kasten says, “is ‘When in Doubt, Check it Out.’” Even the slightest appearance of distress must be treated with the same attention one might give to an obviously serious situation. It’s this type of zealous observing that usually keeps events from escalating to five alarm level. The guards are looking for distress signals such as a swimmer being tossed around in the waves, looking panicked, or “climbing the ladder”—when the motions of their arms look as if they are trying to pull themselves up and away. “Hair in the face is another tell-tale sign,” says Kasten. “Nobody wants their hair in their face, so if the swimmer isn’t bothering to move it out of the way, we know something urgent is going on.”
Often, lifeguards must leave the swim zone marked by the fags. It isn’t uncommon for victims to get yanked from the area into farther waters. That’s why Kasten and his team are vigilant from the start about where and when their charges swim. The rule is, if you can’t swim out to the person in two minutes or less, you rein them in. Two minutes getting out to them means two more minutes returning to shore—and four minutes is a long time for someone in need of emergency care. So, on calm days, the guards call people in if they’re past shoulder-height depth. On days with big waves, they often don’t allow swimmers to go past waist-height.
Tough this micro-monitoring can seem a bit heavy-handed at times, it gets results. Kasten has only seen three deaths in his eight years. His first year, an elderly man on Kiawah Island had a heart attack on the beach. In 2009, a body drifted into the guards’ swim zone, and the victim was too far gone to save. Similarly, a death last year resulted from another victim that floated into the swim zone too late. While all the guards are required to have CPR and Red Cross medical training, emergency care for a drowning victim is particularly complicated. A person typically needs at least two full breaths in their lungs before someone can successfully start CPR. When someone drowns, particularly if they’ve been under for a long time, the lungs can be so full of water that no progress can be made.
Kasten says that while losses are hard on every guard, each person takes it a different way. “It doesn’t look nice when you see something like that,” he says, “and it stays with you. But so, do the rescues, and they make you stronger. I’ve never had someone quit because the bad took a toll on them that the good couldn’t outweigh.” That feeling of significance stretches far—while a poolside lifeguard may expect a wage of around ten dollars an hour for a much cushier job, this beach crew starts only moderately higher at about twelve. There’s infinitely more work involved. At 8:30 every morning during the season, the crew shows up in uniform and begins setting up the beach, bringing out equipment like binoculars, first aid kits and vinegar solution for stingray encounters. From 9 to 10 they train as a group, running hard, physical drills like relay races and employee swimming competitions. Often, they play a swimming game where everyone swims in a line, then the person in back swims hard to get to the front, then the next person in the back swims hard to take the first position, and so on in a braided pattern.
The guards are then in service from 10 in the morning until 6 in the evening. Except for a 45-minute lunch break, they are constantly rotating between training and “in-chair.” Every 45 minutes, the guards switch between occupying the tall chair, physical and medical training, and acting as rove guard. The rove guard stays near the shoreline and acts as a go-between. Unsurprisingly, most rescues are conducted by the rover, as he or she is the closest to the water.
The guards try to maintain a laid-back attitude and a love of people. They are well-regarded and are, of course, ardently adored by many of the public. Kasten has been in more bachelorette party photos than he can count. The one thing that irritates the guards, though, is when swimmers ignore posted signs. There’s a big notice posted next to the IOP beach pier, for instance, warning swimmers to stay away from it—a good wave can do serious damage by knocking someone into the structure. Yet the guards are forever hopping in to fetch people who wade near it unheedingly.
In addition to a forgiving outlook, the guards must possess a passion for fitness and a lot of physical verve. Most of them are slim and trim from the constant motion, not beefy like a young David Hasselhoff. “The funniest thing is that people see us running down the beach and think ‘Baywatch,’” Kasten says, chuckling. “Most of our lifeguards are around 18—they’ve never even seen the show.” Tough the momentum never ends; some days are slow. The beach might be empty, or the water is calm, and swimmers are obeying the rules. “You get to know the other guards very well,” Kasten says. The crew often hangs out after work and surfs together on o f-days. There are also encounters with other friends, like dolphins and a rare turtle. Dolphins are so common while the guards are out on their paddleboards that they can reach out and touch them. Kasten says knocking on the board will o fen invite dolphin curiosity. Occasionally, he’s startled when one of the gentle, inquisitive creatures’ breaches only a few feet away from him.
And there’s the other, scarier animal encounters—the kind with sharp teeth. However, it doesn’t hamper the crew. “Yes, there are sharks out there,” Kasten says. “We don’t ever want to downplay that fact in the interest of PR. But the fact is, there are sharks all around us in the ocean all the time. The percentage of attacks is so low.” As a family park system, IOP County Park will close the beach if a shark is spotted in the water. “But lifeguards know that the chances of one of them attacking is slim,” Kasten says.
Tough they navigate waters filled with jelly fish, riptides and hapless swimmers, everyone on the crew seems wholly satisfied with the job. On this final day of the season, they’re glad for the break, but a little sad to see it end. This is hard, fulfilling work. Kasten puts it best: “Of course you’d earn more money waiting tables. But it’s the difference between coming home super-tired from a day being a server and coming home exhausted because you just saved someone’s life. It’s one of the most rewarding experiences you can have.”