‘Help!’ Lifeguard Presentation at OB Historical Society

by on July 19, 2019 · 0 comments

in History, Ocean Beach

In pre-lifeguard days, bathers relied on safety ropes when wading in the ocean.

by Bob Edwards

On Thursday, July 18, Michael Martino, former Chief Lifeguard for the California State Parks System, gave a presentation on his new book, “Help! San Diego Lifeguards To The Rescue” at Water’s Edge Church on Sunset Cliffs Blvd. The recently published book is the first volume of Mr. Martino’s proposed complete history and covers the period of  1868 to 1941. In the audience of 60 to 70 people were about 10 former lifeguards and retired officers from the lifeguard service.

Mr. Martino showed slides of pictures, charts, and news clippings taken from his book and recounted stories about lifeguards in San Diego with a particular emphasis on Ocean Beach’s role in that history.

In the early days before professional lifeguards appeared, ordinary citizens (rowing club members, anglers, and good Samaritans) were the only people available to rescue swimmers who were in trouble. Mr. Martino said that in those days the County paid a $10 bounty (equivalent to $300 today) for people who retrieved the bodies of drowning victims but provided no money for someone who actually rescued a victim!

Mr. Martino silhouetted in front of one of his slides

The first lifeguard to die on duty was John Brown, who perished off of Ocean Beach in 1913 during a rescue that saved five swimmers, while two others drowned after being pulled out to sea in a rip current. Mr. Martino said that even today, 80% to 90% of rescues involve rip currents. He discussed the mechanics of how rip currents develop and showed a short video he found of a “rip current of the month” on YouTube.

During his presentation, Mr. Martino occasionally digressed from discussing history as when he talked about lifeguards’ thought processes in visually assessing at-risk swimmers before they even get into the water.

Headlines from the 1918 disaster

Of course the infamous disaster that occurred off “Wonderland Point” in north OB in 1918 was discussed. That incident occurred during a promotion held by Benbough’s Bath House. The promotion attracted 5000 people, many of them servicemen being mobilized for duty at the end of World War I. Only one lifeguard, Louis Chavaud, was on duty when a group of servicemen ignored his warnings and attempted to swim or wade across the estuary to South Mission Beach during those pre-Mission Bay channel/ jetty days. Scores of people were pulled out to sea, thirteen died and 60 people were rescued. This story was recounted in the OB Rag on the event’s 100th anniversary last year.

Mr. Martino’s presentation brought San Diego’s lifeguard history up to 1941.  He said he is actively working on Volume 2 of his work which will cover the period from WWII forward.

Mr. Martino with his new book

The Historical Society’s president, Eric DuVall, announced a special event that will replace the Society’s August meeting with a free concert at the Greek Theater at Point Loma Nazarene University on Saturday, August 17, at 6 PM.  Music will be provide by one of San Diego’s first marching bands “The City Guard Band”, established 1880 and revived in 1980 to preserve and perform period band music from 1880 to 1950. The OB RAG will provide more information about this event as it grows closer. Volunteers are being solicited to help with the concert and can get further information by leaving their names and contact information with the Society at 619-226-8125.

As always, refreshments were served at the end of the free (donations accepted) OB Historical Society event and a 50-50 raffle was held, won by this reporter.

All photos of Michael Martino’s slide presentation are by Bob Edwards


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