The United States Lifesaving Association is America’s nonprofit open water lifesaving organization. It provides certification standards for beach and lake guards, public education material, publishes statistical information, oversees lifesaving sport, rewards heroic acts, advocates for drowning reduction in open water and much more. Last week the 50th anniversary of the present form of the organization was held in Huntington Beach, Calif., along with the biannual board of directors meeting and educational conference.
Lifesaving in the United States originated in the Northeast and many older coastal communities, including Galveston, had life houses staffed by the U.S. Lifesaving Service in the late 1800s. In fact, here in Galveston, we go back at least as far as 1875.
But California was an appropriate venue because the immediate roots of the USLA came from a West Coast-based organization. A few forward thinking individuals made trips around the U.S. promoting the concept of one group in the U.S. that could oversee open water lifeguarding. They found fertile ground here in the likes of Jim McCloy, Vic Maceo and Joe Max Taylor, who saw the value of a modern, professionally run lifeguard service in a beach town that relies so heavily on tourism.
In 1957 a group of U.S. mainland and Hawaiian lifeguards went to Australia to compete in their national lifeguard championships. Their names read like a who’s who of the history of lifeguarding in the U.S.: Duke Kahanameka (introduced surfing to the mainland and other parts of the world), Greg Noll (one of the pioneers of big wave surfing) and Bob Burnside (inventor of the hard plastic rescue can, world champion body surfer, L.A. County lifeguard chief). They had 120,000 spectators for the event, and the U.S. team did remarkably well.
Additionally, they showed off the balsa surf board-rescue board and the rescue can. Up to that point, the Aussies had been using a heavier board and had been swimming a line out to victims. Both new innovations spread like wildfire in an aquatically conscious culture like Australia. Three of the original team members, now in their 80s, were present and a video of the original footage was shown. As you would imagine, the stories in the bar afterward were pretty thick!
One thing that was really nice was the whole event really promoted the commonalities that lifeguards and lifeguard organizations share. Despite the decades this diverse group worked, or the part of the country, everyone seemed to be aware that although each area has its own unique challenges there are common threads that run through the entire profession.
As always, I was happy to get home. I drove across the causeway feeling like part of the overarching lifeguard family. But then I saw the seawall and knew only a Texas guard would have any clue how to work in the huge piles of seaweed that blanketed the beach. Our maintenance crews are taking care of it, and things will look good soon, but either way, there’s no place like home!
Peter Davis is chief of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. The views in this column are Davis’ and do not necessarily represent those of the Beach Patrol, Galveston Park Board of Trustees or any other entity. Information on the Beach Patrol is at galvestonbeachpatrol.com.