DEL MAR — Forty years ago, Jim Lischer imagined he would spend his retirement in a beachfront home in Del Mar. Oceanfront property priced as it is, Lischer’s dream unfortunately didn’t quite play out.
“So I did the next best thing,” he said. “I wore a swimsuit to work for 38 years.”
After nearly four decades as a Del Mar lifeguard, Lischer retired May 1. His 38-year career includes more than 900 rescues and no drownings.
Lischer’s interest in lifeguarding began after spending a month on the beach in New Jersey when he was 12. His older brother, Chuck, was working as a guard.
“He inspired me as a teen to consider it,” Lischer said. “To me, lifeguards were the king of the beach.”
His family eventually moved to La Mesa, and Lischer attended Helix High School, where he swam and played water polo. He continued in both sports as a student at Grossmont College until he was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War.
After his return, he responded to a 1972 advertisement seeking lifeguards in Del Mar because he always wanted to be close to the beach. He said he “absolutely did not” intend for the job to evolve into a lifelong career.
“I was planning to become a credentialed physical education teacher and coach water polo and swimming,” he said. “I was ready to apply for a job at Torrey Pines (High School), but the lifeguard captain offered me more work.” The rest, as they say, is history.
During his impressive career, Lischer said two of his 900-plus saves stand out. One he refers to as the 900-pound rescue.
“Three 300-pound Samoans got caught in a rip current,” he said. “I went out to make a supportive rescue, meaning just to check to see if they were panicking. When I got to them … they sunk my board.”
Lischer said when lifeguards are on a rescue, their colleagues watch to see if a hand goes up, meaning assistance is needed.
“I take pride to not need help in lifeguarding,” Lischer said. “That’s the first time I called for assistance. There was no way I was going to bring these three people into the beach. I needed more lifeguards with more boards.”
Lischer refers to his other memorable save, which occurred in 1978, as the dolphin-assisted rescue.
“Dolphins were involved with children we were rescuing who were in a rip current,” he said. “Swimming out both Randy (Brimm) and I noticed … the dolphins were circling the children.
“So when we’re halfway out to the kids the dolphins apparently broke away and came to us. We always have remembered it appearing to be communication,” he said. “They were assisting us, telling us, ‘They’re over here.’ And then they left and went back to the children.”
Lischer said one of the biggest differences he’s seen throughout his career is the increase in community support for the lifeguard budget, which allows the department to hire more lifeguards and purchase better equipment and more rescue boats.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the department’s family-like atmosphere. Lischer has worked under three captains who have all maintained the philosophy that “you work better together if you socialize together.”
“That’s 38 years that I’ve been a part of that and that’s very enticing to stay at work for,” he said.
Pat Vergne, the current lifeguard captain, called Lischer “the best waterman I’ve ever known in my life.”
If he could change anything about his job, Lischer said he would encourage beach-goers to communicate with the lifeguards.
“Beach lifeguards can help people if they ask simple questions, like ‘Where is the safe swimming area?’“ he said. “Ninety percent of the people who come to the beach do not ask, and they have a higher chance of getting in trouble.”
Although he retired May 1, Lischer plans to return for at least the next two Independence Day weekends. “My goal was to work 40 July Fourth weekends,” he said.
Lischer will also tend to some home maintenance projects and hopefully travel with his son, Ryan, and 30-year “soulmate,” Michele Jacquin, to Hawaii, Tahiti and Australia to surf in 80-degree water wherever he goes.
“I’m creating my own endless summer,” he said.