On vigilant watch. On guard. On the stand. On their toes.
That is the job for a Sea Colony Beach Patrol lifeguard from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. through June 16 and Sept. 5 through Oct. 9, and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 17 through Sept. 4.
While virtually everyone else around them on the beach is cavorting, reading, sleeping, talking or just taking in the magical salt air, the Guardians by the Sea are ready to spring into action.
Even while being cordial to those who approach the lifeguard stand, they are always on alert. Their eyes remain on the swimmers in the surf, even while they are sipping and chewing for sustenance during the long beach day.
Someone’s life may be in danger.
And they are the ones who have the ability to rescue swimmers in need.
The Coastal Point spotlights one of these Guardians by the Sea with a beach lifeguard feature story each week during the season.
There are two dramatic rescues that stick with her whenever she is on the lifeguard stand.
The first unfolded in 2021 — Katie Agostini’s first season of transitioning from a pool lifeguard to the beach and ocean.
“I remember being nervous that entire day, because the waves were much bigger than usual,” said the 22-year-old resident of Bristow, Va. “I was worrying myself, thinking that I shouldn’t be doing this if I am scared to go into the surf. My lieutenant, Bailey Noel, helped me calm down so that I could breathe better when swimming through larger waves. He told me that if I couldn’t work on days with big waves, then I shouldn’t be working out there at all. His comment has since stuck with me, teaching me to never give up.”
(Noel is now a captain with the Delaware State Parks Beach Patrol.)
During that day’s watch, a small 8-year-old girl and her father were swimming in a sizable riptide.
“I remember standing up and motioning to them to swim to one side and escape the rip, but they were not making any progress,” Agostini recalled.
A split-second later, her instinct took over. She blew her whistle and raced into the surf as another lifeguard quickly joined her.
“I remembered thinking how much easier it was to brace the little girl in the waves, compared to bracing the other guards earlier that day when we were practicing rescues,” said Agostini. “The guards are much bigger and heavier than the little girl. It was definitely very rewarding helping her get out of the water, And I felt pretty awesome.”
Another memorable rescue occurred last summer, when the waves broke large in the aftermath of the previous day’s storm. According to Agostini, swimmers may sometimes underestimate that condition and tire easily after a long period of repeated diving beneath the thundering surf. They also have a tendency to get pulled farther from the shore than they’d intended, she added.
“At the beginning of this particular day, my stand was getting all the action,” said Agostini. “We had already made five saves — or covers — before noon. I was keeping a careful watch on an older man whom I had rescued previously that day. He seemed to be relaxing in the water, just floating over the waves. I couldn’t see his face, since he was facing away from the shore and out to the ocean. He wasn’t waving his arms or anything, so he appeared to be fine.”
But something was bothering Agostini. Relying again on her instinct, she whistled before racing into the ocean.
“Something just seemed wrong,” she recalled. “His family had been with him for a while, and then he was alone. And he no longer had the Boogie board that he’d been using. He was drifting farther and farther out, so I just went to check him out, since those types of saves had been happening all day.”
The man tried to cling to Agostini, instead of her rescue can, and his face was very pale.
“He was not well, and he kept saying that he was sorry and wanted to get out of the water,” said Agostini. “I tried to enable him to hold onto the can, but he couldn’t.” Struggling to stand in the roiling surf, Agostini quickly whistled for assistance.
“I was trying to keep his head above water and make some progress toward shore,” she said. “Thankfully, another lifeguard arrived and helped me swim him to shore. We administered oxygen and checked his vital signs. This rescue stays with me, because he needed help despite not showing any signs of being in trouble.”
One of the most rewarding jobs
For Agostini, being a lifeguard fulfills her desire and determination to help others. She has an innate talent to calm troubled, emotional swimmers in distress and reassuringly move them to safety.
“That’s just part of the job,” she said. “Being a lifeguard requires a ton of hard work and determination. We have to stay in shape, always be alert, work effectively as part of a team, and stay current on life-saving practices and first-aid measures. Being a lifeguard is one of the most rewarding jobs there is. We must be the first to respond to emergencies in the water and on the beach, and it is a very fulfilling obligation — especially after you’ve put in so much work and training.”
The lure of working on the beach during the summer attracted Agostini to the lifeguard stand.
“I love being at the beach, and I enjoy running and swimming, so being a lifeguard in this setting seemed like an awesome thing to try,” she explained. “I appreciate my job because it enables me to help people stay safe. It is such a rewarding experience, saving someone during a rescue. I want to have more and make more saves, because that is why I am there. I want to go in and help people escape difficult situations.”
Agostini thrives at fulfilling the toughest responsibility of her job.
“I must know when to go into the water for a rescue and when to hold back because the swimmer is safe,” she said. “Sometimes, it can be difficult to distinguish between a struggling swimmer and a patron who is simply floating or relaxing. It may feel silly to run in for a rescue if it turns out that the swimmer was just fine all along. However, I have learned that, when in doubt, it is best to just check it out. It is better to be more cautious than not cautious enough. That way, incidents are less likely to occur, and more life-threatening situations are prevented.
“I think that recognizing struggling patrons definitely becomes easier with experience,” she added. “So as I learn more and more each day, the responsibility becomes easier.”
Conversely, Agostini said she enjoys the ease of just being an SCBP lifeguard. She said being on the stand doesn’t really feel like a job.
“I get to work out with my friends and help beachgoers stay safe,” she said. “Even though the workouts can be long and tiring, I enjoy doing them and getting paid for that. It helps me stay in shape for the job.”
One of the best advantages of her job is being part of a team that shares a strong camaraderie.
“Everyone is very open and welcoming,” she noted. “They all want you to do well, although competition during workouts is encouraged, to help everyone improve. I never have a hard time getting to know the other guards on my team, and I always enjoy sitting with and working with others. We hang out and eat together outside of work, and we play volleyball after work hours. The workouts and routines can be strict, since our captains, lieutenants and fellow lifeguards have high standards. They expect your best each day.”
The ‘G-man’ cometh
There are several individuals who have made a major impact on Agostini’s career as a lifeguard. In particular, SCBP Capt. Dave “G-man” Griffith offered Agostini a pool lifeguard job that enabled her to spend time at the beach in 2021.
“He told me that I could work out with the Sea Colony Beach Patrol lifeguards during the mornings before going to the pool,” said Agostini. “Before I knew it, I was trying out for the beach patrol, completing the beach test every day until I was consistently passing it each time. ‘G-man’ allowed me to show him and others that I could be effective as a beach lifeguard, and he gave me that opportunity.”
Agostini’s parents have also made an impact on her success as a lifeguard.
“They have supported me through the ups and downs associated with being a lifeguard, and with all other aspects of my life,” she said.
Agostini’s short-term goal is to enjoy life on the stand and to have a successful summer. She has earned her undergraduate degree in mathematics from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and is currently taking summer graduate courses there, with the goal of earning her master’s degree in secondary education. As a result, she has been commuting weekly from JMU to Bethany Beach since Memorial Day weekend.
Agostini said she hopes to improve her performance in lifeguard competitions for the 2-kilometer run and the relays, as well as the Frisbee competition.
Her long-term objective is to become the best math teacher, beginning in the fall of 2024, and to enjoy a fulfilling life that includes travel and being with the ones she loves.
Article by Mike Stern, Coastal Point, June 15, 2023