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Bob and Rosanna Westby and Suzy and Karl Wagner describe the lifeguards as fabulous, awesome and bitchin’. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek
Bob and Rosanna Westby and Suzy and Karl Wagner describe the lifeguards as fabulous, awesome and bitchin’. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek
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Del Mar lifeguards celebrate 50 years of rescues

DEL MAR — Lifeguards past and present were joined by about 250 residents to celebrate their department’s 50th anniversary June 27 at Powerhouse Community Center.

“Everyone has just gone on about what a great community party it was,” said Jill Coughlin from Friends of the Powerhouse, the group that hosted the fundraising event.

Brad Smith, a 22-year Del Mar lifeguard, and famed surfer Charles “Cheer” Critchlow, who was with the department from 1972 to 1975, said they have their fair share of rescue stories.

But some of their most memorable moments don’t include drowning swimmers.

“We used to have hatch covers from ships wash ashore a lot,” Smith said. “They made good dining tables so everyone wanted them. One afternoon, I think it was 1967, there’s five guards and we see this black spot out in the water.

“I didn’t care but the other guys are all calling dibs on it,” he said. “Then all of a sudden there’s this gross smell. Turns out it wasn’t a hatch cover. It was a bloated dead seal. I looked around and the other four guys are gone.”

Gardner Stevens, the captain at the time, told Smith to get rid of it.

“He tells me we don’t want that thing to drift into Del Mar,” Smith said. “He tells me to tow it out to sea so it will drift into Solana Beach. So I paddle out to get this seal, and there’s guts and it smells really bad.

“Lt. Jack Ross tells me to jump on it and tie it up but I didn’t want to do that,” he added. “So I throw a rope over it and pull it over and under a few times and start pulling it out to sea. The skin starts peeling off and I can see ribs. Then all of a sudden, here comes the biggest set of the day.”

Smith said he made it over the first two waves but the seal only cleared the first one.

“The seal exploded,” he said. “The guts all washed to shore. Gardner says to me, ‘Smith, you failed me this time.’”

Critchlow said one of his favorite stories involves an onshore rescue.

“It was winter, 1973 or ’74, and I’m at 29th Street, guarding the beach with no one on it,” he said. “It was a nice day, but windy, and there’s a knock on the door. This guy tells me there’s a guy up around Solana Beach that looked like he was in trouble.

“So I go check it out and near an alcove on the cliff there’s this guy, buck naked, crying,” he said. “He’s screaming, telling me he was bit in both feet by stingrays. And he’s bleeding like a stuck pig out of both feet.

“I asked him where his clothes were and he didn’t know,” Critchlow added. “So I called Gardner to let him know what’s going on and then wrapped a blanket around the guy and drove him to 29th Street, where an ambulance picked him up and drove him to the hospital naked.

“The guy told me he just wanted to go for a swim,” Critchlow said. “Not sure why he wanted to do it naked in the middle of winter.”

Fun tales aside, both men humbly admitted “a lot of people wouldn’t be here today” were it not for the efforts of Del Mar lifeguards.

In 1965, about six years after Del Mar narrowly voted to split from the county, the new city formed its own lifeguard department, with Stevens at the helm overseeing a crew of five that manned towers at 17th and 25th streets.

Grant Larson served as captain beginning in 1983 and was followed by Pat Vergne, who has headed the department for more than 15 of his 35 years as a Del Mar lifeguard.

Smith, Critchlow and Vergne all agree the biggest change to the department is the number of people.

About 15 full-time guards are employed in the off-season, but that number swells to around 60 during the summer.

“There are more crowds, more surfers, more swimmers and beach visitors every year,” Vergne said. “Things have advanced because of technology and with the rescue boats. But the sheer rescue, with a board and fins, has always been there and that remains today.”

Hailey Horan, who has been with the department for just about one month, was also at the event.

“It’s been awesome,” she said. “I’ve had one rescue so far. It was a woman and her husband who got taken out up by North Beach.”

Most residents who attended said they were there to support the lifeguards for all their efforts to keep the approximately 2.5-mile stretch of beach safe.

“They’re fabulous,” Karl Wagner said. “They’re awesome. They’re bitchin’.”

The five-hour event included a silent auction and raffle, music by Surfs Up, a Beach Boys tribute band, dancing and dinner by Brett’s BBQ.

Money raised will go toward the purchase of a new lifeguard boat and ongoing maintenance for the beach safety center and Powerhouse Community center, Coughlin said.