She was about to make a young Jay Moyles wonder
why he signed up to be a lifeguard.
The nine-year-old girl was swimming in Sarasota Bay when she got caught in the current that swept her through Longboat Pass and spit her out into the Gulf of Mexico.
She was about to make a young Jay Moyles wonder why he signed up to be a lifeguard.
He jumped in with his swim buoy trailing behind him, swam out to the girl and turned his head to grab the buoy.
The panicky girl grabbed a handful of his long, curly hair in each hand and pulled herself up his body as if it were a ladder.
After prying her hands loose, he helped her jump across the sandbars to a place where they could make it to shore outside the current's grasp.
When they hit the beach, the girl finally unclenched her fists. Two bloody handfuls of his hair were in her palms.
It was the day he realized he could die on the job, said Moyles, who retires after 31 years on Feb. 1 as Chief of the Marine Rescue Division of Manatee County's Public Safety Department.
No day at the beach
Other than the beautiful waterfront view from the office window, being a lifeguard is no day at the beach, with roasting summer sand, icy winter water, windburn, sunburn, blinding glare, skin cancer and scars from rock rescues. Add the strain of hours of constant vigilance followed by deliberately running into scenes of life and death chaos, and it's a wonder anyone applies for the job.
But few careers can match the rewards.
Moyles recounts the first life he saved in his early career as if it happened yesterday.
A man collapses on the beach. His wife screams. His lips are blue. His pulse is gone. Moyles starts CPR rescue breaths and pumps his chest. In the background, he hears a minister praying. Suddenly, the man gasps a deep breath.
Moyles reaches inside a Styrofoam cooler, feeling for the dime taped to the inside. He gives the dime to a bystander and tells him to find a pay phone and call an ambulance. The man survives.
Lifeguarding has improved with technology. Instead of a dime taped inside a cooler, lifeguards have cell phones, radios, the Internet, and ATVs and Jet Skis.
There are latex gloves and breathing masks and defibrillators and oxygen machines and boards to stabilize patients for transport to hospitals. There is a new Marine Rescue Facility in Bradenton Beach across Gulf Drive from the Coquina Beach main lifeguard tower, in large part thanks to Moyles' efforts.
But with all the new technology, it's an experienced, calm, take-charge lifeguard who finds the lost children, spots the people who have overestimated their swimming ability and warns them to take it easy, and pulls people out of rip currents on days they never should have been swimming.
"There is no technology that can replace a lifeguard," Moyles said. "When you're out there screaming, 'Oh, God,' God intervenes and sends you a lifeguard."
Other things have complicated lifeguarding in the past three decades.
There is gang training, since a shooting at Coquina Beach that resulted in a new parking lot design to prevent "cruising." There's SCUBA and rescue dive training. PADRE training (Passenger Aircraft Disaster Response Exercise) in case an airplane crashes into the water. Ambulance driver training. Hurricane response training. EMT training. Terrorism training. SABER training (Special Activities Bicycle Emergency Rescue), where he learned to respond to emergencies in crowds by using a bike in places emergency vehicles can't reach.
Then there is the training lifeguards give others, about surviving rip currents, reading beach flags, treating stingray and jellyfish stings and beach safety (Rule No. 1 – swim in a lifeguarded area).
Some things never change, he said.
Poor swimmers still buy the cheapest rafts to keep them afloat. Parents still think water wings will stay on a child slathered with sunblock. There's still no air conditioning in the lifeguard stands. The county keeps luring half a million tourists to the beaches each year while cutting lifeguard positions.
And there has never been a way to leave the job at the beach at the end of the day.
Time to call it a day
With memories of close calls both of beachgoers and of co-workers, "I want a job I don't have to take home with me," Moyles said.
Lifeguards have a realistic career expectancy of 25 years, he said. He's leaving the beach at age 52 to begin other ventures, perhaps as a cook at a Florida ranch, perhaps doing calligraphy or maybe learning to fly fish.
He wants to leave at the top of his game, before his patience wears thin and one of the 3 million people who visit the beaches each year becomes obstinate and makes him lose his calm, even temper.
"I've loved working for the county, and they're lucky to have such a good staff," Moyles said.
There's no word on who might replace Moyles, he said, adding that with recent staff cuts from 18 to 12, he hopes his salary can pay for one or two more lifeguards.
They had better be ready to fill some big flip flops.
As Moyles says, "When you're at your worst, we're at our best."