“Why be a lifeguard?” I asked LA County Lifeguard Captain Remy Smith. “I love going to work,” he said. “Having to be ready to perform every day and having the chance to work with so many different people. I love that it’s proactive work. Our goal is to stop the bad things from ever happening. We are there to help people, to make the beach safe for everyone, and to prevent accidents, injuries and deaths.”
Remy Smith was born in Australia in 1967 and grew up in New York, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles.
“When I lived in LA I went to Area H Alternative School in Highland Park,” Smith said of his childhood. “My friends and I would ride the bus to the beach on the days we weren’t playing baseball or football. We usually went to Tower 26. It was where the ‘cool kids’ hung out. We rode boogie boards and we body surfed.”
In the 1990’s Smith went to Santa Monica College.
He’d been a baseball player but had to give it up because of a sports accident where he had injured his hand. He wanted to stay in shape and he knew he could swim, even with a hurt hand.
“I joined the swim team and the water polo team,” Smith said. “I was the worst guy on the team starting out but in a couple of seasons I was the fastest in butterfly, individual medley, and breast stroke.”
He said the team head coach was John Joseph, a legendary coach and the most winning coach in Junior College history.
“Whether you were the fastest or the slowest he respected and cared about all his team members,” Smith said. “Stuart Blumkin, himself a star athlete, was our second coach and he and Coach Joseph made a good tag team.”
Smith said he had never thought about being a lifeguard but SMC has a long tradition of producing lifeguards.
“Many swimming team members became lifeguards after graduating and would come back to train with the team,” he said. “The lifeguards who swam with the team inspired me to become a lifeguard.”
Being a lifeguard is a highly competitive position. To be selected for an interview applicants must first race in a 1000 meter open water ocean swim. Typically about 300 to 400 people participate. The top 100 finishers are then interviewed.
Smith was 23 years old the first time he competed in the 1000 meter open water ocean swim and he didn’t make it. The 54 degree water was too much for him.
In preparation for the next open water ocean swim he practiced over and over in cold water and even took ice baths to get his body accustomed to cold-water temperatures. “For me to make it,” Smith said, “I had to put my mind in another place.”
Smith finished in the top 100 the second time he competed and secured one of the coveted interviews.
In the interview he told them, “I am a relentless person and I will really apply myself to this job.”
That got him the job and in 1991, Remy Smith became the sixth black person to be hired as a full time lifeguard. When he was hired there were four black lifeguards and one black Section Chief, Russ Walker.
At that time there were 140 full time and 800 recurrent (part time) ocean lifeguards working for the county.
Everyone starts as a recurrent ocean lifeguard. To become a full time lifeguard, they must log 200 days of work, take a swim test and a written test, and be appraised for performance and knowledge. Certification for lifeguards is an ongoing process and permanents continue to be tested twice yearly and recurrents once per year.
Lifeguards are also part of the LA County Fire Department.
Smith said he was at the Encinal Fire on June 22.
“Lifeguards help with all emergencies,” Smith said. “Fires, car accidents, cliff rescues. We do whatever is needed.”
Smith said being a lifeguard made him grow up faster because there is a responsibility for people’s lives.
“In the time I have been a lifeguard there have been over 1000 rescues by LA County Lifeguards at LA County Beaches,” he said. “On one day in Zuma we made over 300 rescues. It was 110 degrees in the Valley and over 150,000 people had come to Zuma Beach that day. Usually we get to people so quickly that they are more scared than hurt. But at the end of that day at Zuma we had a boogey boarder who hit his head. When we pulled him out of the water he wasn’t breathing and we couldn’t feel a pulse. Thankfully we were able to bring him back.”
Smith said the job required special training to take care of the children that are rescued.
“One day a few other off-duty lifeguards and I were training on jet skis,” he said. “A two-year-old boy had been pulled out to sea by a rip tide. He was almost 300 yards off shore when we got to him. We were just in time to save him. I will never forget that rescue.”
Smith hopes to prevent accidents from happening, guarding the water and the beach.
He advises parents that, “Swimming is a life skill, everyone should learn to swim.”
He laughingly adds, “but teach them to swim in warm water because they’ll learn better when they’re comfortable. And when you come to the beach make sure your kids know the number of the lifeguard tower where you are on the beach and teach them that lifeguards are their friends.”
Remy Smith has been on the job 22 years. He was made a permanent hire in 1997 and promoted to Captain in 2006.
“I didn’t realize I was going to feel the way I did when I came back to Santa Monica but I felt I’d come home,” he said.
It was an understandable feeling given that Remy Smith’s great grandfather came to Santa Monica in 1908.
He was the Presiding Elder at Phillips Chapel on 4th Street in Santa Monica.
Smith’s grandfather, Hilliard Lawson served on the Santa Monica City Council and his grandmother, Bernice Stout Lawson, was a well-known music teacher in Santa Monica.
For Smith home is Santa Monica and the ocean.
“Being a lifeguard is a lifestyle,” he said. “Surfing is by far the most challenging way to stay in shape. The waves are always changing. It’s a mental and physical challenge.”
He said when you catch a wave you’re walking on water and there’s no better feeling.
“The most important thing to know,” Smith tells everyone, “is that the ocean is always in charge.”
Copyright © 2011 by Santa Monica Mirror. All rights reserved.