Thousands of people flocked to Huntington Beach on Monday to watch surfing legend Kelly Slater and other professionals ride the waves during the U.S. Open of Surfing.
But Huntington Beach Lifeguard 3 supervisor Greg Eisele and Lifeguard 2 supervisor Sean McLaughlin were busy watching the beachgoers from the pier, radioing to ground and water units if people were too far out in the water.
"It's really easy to see the rip currents [from the pier], so we can help the tower guards out," Eisele said. "We're the eyes in the sky up here. We can see a lot more than what's going on from those towers."
This week isn't a typical one for lifeguards and marine safety officers, and some would consider it one of their busiest weeks in the year. The U.S. Open draws thousands of people to the south side of the pier, but for Marine Safety Officer Matt Karl, Monday was a slow day.
"The weather's good and there's a lot of people, but it's pretty much like how it's been every day this summer," he said.
Huntington Beach has 135 lifeguards and 25 lifeguard towers lining 3.5 miles of sand.
On Monday, Karl was working with lifeguard Ericka Lorenz on the south side of the pier, patrolling in a red Toyota Tacoma with safety equipment in the truck bed.
The lifeguards and marine safety officers work very efficiently in tandem, each group covering and supporting the other.
If the guards in Tower 7 believe some swimmers have gone too far out into the ocean, they'll contact Eisele and McLaughlin at Tower Zero (the pier) and ask them if a rescue needs to be made.
Once the tower guards get the green light to run into the water, dispatchers in the lifeguard headquarters will radio Karl and Lorenz to drive to the empty tower and hold that position until after the rescue is made. Occasionally, a lifeguard boat will also arrive to assist in the rescue or monitor the area until the truck arrives.
"The tower guards are pretty much the backbone," Karl said. "For me, I'm just supporting them because they do all the labor and intensive stuff, for the most part. We'll take over the big calls and medical aids, but the main thing for us is [watching] the water, and they're the ones doing most of the work."
Karl, who has been a lifeguard for 32 years, said he's seen his share of excitement at the beach. He was on duty during what was then the 1986 Ocean Pacific Pro Surfing Championships when a large riot broke out. He also witnessed the pier collapse in 1988.
"I've definitely seen a lot of cool, crazy and bizarre stuff out here," he said, as a man in a green full-body spandex suit walked around the beach giving people hugs.
As Karl and Lorenz were making their rounds, they were waved down by a family whose daughter stubbed her toe while riding her bike.
"That's like the third toe in five days that I've had to bandage," Lorenz said.
Meanwhile in Tower Zero, Eisele and McLaughlin scanned the water on both sides of the pier using binoculars. If they get calls for incidents farther down the coast, they have large high-magnification binoculars from a warship that they can call upon, Eisele said.
A perk to the job is they have front-row seats to the competition, but their eyes don't linger long. The two may take an occasional peek at the competing surfers but quickly go back to monitoring the water and communicating with their colleagues on the ground.
"We definitely have a good view of the surf contest," McLaughlin said. "I was up here [Sunday] night and all the pros started coming out to free surf. It's an amazing privilege to be able to watch some of these pros surf for fun rather than for a contest."
Like police officers and firefighters, lifeguards have a responsibility to keep the public safe, but Karl said their circumstances are unique because of the more laid-back environment.
"Police officers are dealing with people that don't want them there most of the time. The fire department goes to a lot of traumatic car accidents," he said. "When I show up, people are happy that I'm there. Usually, I have a positive outcome."