On the Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend, Jack Jakubek, 22, was in the middle of the swim portion of the Nauset Beach lifeguard test that should have been a walk in the park for him. Jakubek was supremely fit, a record-setting collegiate swimmer who had just graduated from the State University of New York at Cortland.
But he mysteriously slipped below the waves at Pilgrim Lake halfway through the swim. After rescuers searched the lake, Jakubek was found but could not be resuscitated.
The profound irony of someone dying so young, especially someone tasked with a lifesaving mission often associated with fitness and youth, threw a spotlight on the hundreds of men and women who return to the Cape each year to guard our beaches.
Many are teachers working through their summer break, some are professional lifeguards moving from one seasonal posting to the next, but many more are like Jakubek – young and poised on the cusp of their adult life, debating school and career choices. It is a transition helped by the responsibilities and the life lessons learned in summers spent watching over others.
Zach Sarapas eased onto the bench of the picnic table on the bluff overlooking Corporation Beach, elbows on the tabletop, his black hair pulled back into a bun, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses. Under a hazy sun, the pre-summer beach was a golden crescent between granite jetties, with only a few small knots of sunbathers and the occasional beachcomber.
Sarapas, 22, says he loves this view. At high tide, he says, the water is a Caribbean blue.
Five summers ago, Sarapas was about to enter his senior year at Mt. St. Charles Academy. The Franklin native had been coming to the Cape for the summer since he was young, playing in the sand, walking the tidal flats, swimming in the warm water of Dennis’ Cape Cod Bay beaches.
That summer, he graduated from summer visitor to town employee, donning the lifeguard red, the whistle, and the obligatory sunglasses. A competitive swimmer in high school, he passed the required tests but was about to learn that the job was much more than getting paid to be at the beach.
Barely a month into his new job, Sarapas and another lifeguard answered the call and helped save the life of a woman who had gone into cardiac arrest and passed out in the water.
“It’s ingrained in us, that fight reflex, where we go right at the issue and make the make-or-break decision,” said Sarapas, now an assistant supervisor of lifeguards in Dennis.
“I could have fled, and gone to ask someone else for help. I learned I had fight when I was 17.”
Wellfleet head lifeguard Kenny Lloyd is following in his father’s footsteps. Standing in the parking lot of Whitecrest Beach, he seemed mature beyond his 21 years and boyish face.
“This is where I’ve grown up. This is one of my favorite places to be and if I can get paid to make this a better place for everybody then I am absolutely going to do it,” Lloyd said.
Lifeguarding on the Cape is a legitimate, serious job, Lloyd said.
“You have a lot of responsibility and, at this point, I’ve grown to like having that responsibility.”
When he started teaching over 20 years ago, Jody Craven, 49, thought about taking summers off. A Wellfleet native and lifelong surfer, Craven has yet to take that summer vacation and is in his 27th year as a Wellfleet lifeguard. He often recruits many of his lifeguards from the students he meets at Nauset Regional High School. It’s not just athleticism he’s looking for, but maturity and intelligence.
Lifeguards are an eclectic mix, he said, including professional office-types who work the beach on weekends because they love the job.
“There are lots of us who are fit, but it takes more than that,” he said. “You have to be smart as well and you absolutely have to be a people person.”
Gordon Miller is all that. Miller doesn’t have that classic, lithe swimmer’s body. Raised in Bolivar, Tennessee, nearly 400 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, he played football in high school and college. At 54 years old, he is still heavily muscled, a linebacker whose intimidation factor is undermined by a quick smile and an infectious laugh.
As the oldest child, he found himself looking after his youngest siblings.
“Caring for others was something I did naturally,” he said.
Miller made his first rescue at 16 in a city pool in Memphis. A young girl visiting friends jumped into the deep end, and then realized she couldn’t swim.
“I was watching the whole thing and I said, ‘I think she’s drowning,”‘ he recalled, 40 years after the event. He jumped in and pulled her back onto the pool deck. It happened so quickly that he didn’t have any memory of having done it, until people started applauding.
“OK, I guess I did do it,” he said to himself that day. And at 19, the linebacker from Tennessee found himself far from home, lifeguarding at Arcadia National Park in Maine.
“It was the first time I’d ever spent any time near the ocean and I said I’ll always live near the ocean. Something just tugged at me,” Miller said.
He’s been a teacher, worked in hotels, and continued lifeguarding, alternating between Maui, Hawaii, and Cape Cod, where he’s in his 33rd summer and is the North District lifeguard supervisor for Cape Cod National Seashore.
Diplomacy, he said, is completely underrated as an essential quality of a lifeguard. Standing at Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro, he pointed to the massive sandbar that runs parallel to the beach for a half-mile, creating a deep trough and strong current between lifeguards on their stands and those playing in the waves.
“If this is busy, you’ll do 10 to 20 assists and one to three rescues, but you’ll do 3,000 interpersonal exchanges,” Miller said. “You’re going to interact with the population much more that way and you have to be sensitive to how they present themselves – are they angry and upset? – and be able to respond in the appropriate manner.”
But any job working outdoors at the intersection of sea and land has its sublime moments.
Miller recalled the joy of being at The Church – the lifeguards’ name for Race Point because they say it’s a lot quieter than beaches to the south – and watching humpback whales pass by just beyond the sandbars. He urges his young charges to forgo a second job if they can afford it.
“I tell kids to explore Cape Cod. Don’t overwork yourself, you should enjoy the summer,” he said.
Rookie Seashore guard Michael Glenn is enjoying his summer, filling out medical school applications and manning the lifeguard stands at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham. The Overland Park, Kansas, native and graduate of the University of Massachuetts Amherst was on the college swim team, but had no ocean lifesaving experience. He found it hard to get his bearings in the ocean and “zig-zagged” all over the swim test course, he said.
“I trust they’ll teach me everything we need to do so that, when the time comes, I’ll be ready,” he said.
Longtime ocean lifeguard Keith McFarland, the South District supervisor for the Seashore, was a college swimmer at the University of New Hampshire who started out in the pools and ponds of his native Western Massachusetts. A teacher, he moved up to Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, for five years and has been at the national park for 18 summers.
“It’s an active, healthy lifestyle, in a beautiful setting with a great team of people, doing something that’s fun,” McFarland said.”`And, you can come back every summer.”
On Wednesday, McFarland stood beneath a brilliant blue sky on Coast Guard Beach in Eastham with fellow lifeguards and longtime friends Nick Kupens, who teaches in Washington, D.C., and Wilmington High School teacher Chris Randall, who has been with the park for 15 summers. Unlike the rookies, these veterans were steeped in history, their own personal history and that of the lifesaving tradition that had its roots in the Massachusetts Humane Society, which erected shelters and initiated patrols that helped the many shipwreck victims cast upon these same beaches over 200 years ago.
The Seashore provides rental housing at a reduced rate for lifeguards, some of whom start out single in communal housing and return married, living in a neighborhood with other lifeguard families, sometimes with newly born children. Each generation of lifeguards passed down the traditions, the training, to the next. McFarland could name the head lifeguards and supervisors before him, stretching back to one of the first, Dana Hathaway in the 1960s, whose gravestone bears the carved image of the lifeguard’s torpedo buoy.
“There’s a lot of history and tradition with the lifeguards here, and it’s something we try to instill in our rookies going forward, that you’re not only representing me and Gordon but all the lifeguards who have gone before you for the last 50-plus years,” McFarland said.
Sarah Newcomb-Baker, one of the head lifeguards at Nauset Beach in Orleans, also is imbued with that sense of history. Newcomb is an old Cape name, and her great-great-grandfather was a member of the lifesaving service and helped rescue seven people off a wrecked vessel in Wellfleet back in the 1800s.
A physical education teacher in Marshfield, Newcomb-Baker was born and raised in Orleans and her family rented rooms to Nauset lifeguards when she was growing up.
Newcomb-Baker has been working Nauset for 19 summers, eight of those as a head lifeguard. Last Thursday, she chose to be interviewed standing up while she kept one eye on a rip current that had developed in big surf, just off the head lifeguard stand.
She recalled a rescue in which a woman was lifted by a large wave and planted, feet first, onto the sand, fracturing her tibia, the bone protruding from an open wound. Six lifeguards worked over her, splinting the leg, trying to keep her from going into shock. The experience bound that crew together, she said.
“We train together, and that’s another push for us to be together as a team when we need to be,” she said. “This job’s not easy. One person is not going in alone. They always have the backup and have trust in those going in behind them.”
Sarah Wildman is a summer kid from Belmont who has been a lifeguard, and now waterfront director, in Harwich for seven years. Nearly half of all drownings occur in lakes, and nearly half of all drowning victims are children, with ages 2 to 4 most at risk. At Long Pond, Harwich lifeguards must keep an eye on as many as 80 children in the water on crowded days, taking lessons, jumping off floating docks and playing.
“I feel like with every lifeguard, you’re always worried about the worst-case scenario possible,” Wildman said.
But lifeguarding has changed. The days where a lifeguard’s equipment consisted of sunscreen, sunglasses and a torpedo buoy have morphed into ATVs and personal watercraft, and knowing how to use medical equipment such as defibrillators and a pulse oximeter that measures blood oxygen and gives responding paramedics a head start in determining the nature and severity of the injury or illness.
Chatham’s Beach Patrol relies heavily on technology and rapid transport. Although their protected area at Lighthouse Beach is relatively small, their reach extends south for 7 miles or more into the Cape’s most treacherous currents and waves and the region’s greatest concentration of great white sharks. The seven beach patrol members are all lifeguards with years of ocean experience.
“I work in a classroom with no windows all year, and then I come here and there are no walls,” said beach supervisor Colin Politi, an English teacher at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School. Two thousand or more people can be on the beach on a good day, he said, but there are no lifeguard stands to sit on. Instead, they ride in ATVs carrying medical instruments and supplies, a surf rescue board, backboard and other rescue equipment.
A personal watercraft sits at anchor and is used often for quick response to those carried off by the swift currents that run past Lighthouse Beach and out to sea on the outgoing tide. A nearby sandbar, known as The Point, is a favorite with beachgoers who often choose to walk out at low tide, despite warnings that the water is deep on either side and plagued with rips. In August 2008, a Groton man was swept away and drowned while trying to rescue his daughter after she fell in.
“One guy can get to someone in a matter of seconds (on the personal watercraft),” Politi said. They coordinate with both the fire department and the harbormaster for remote rescues along South Beach down to Monomoy.
“This is a great place to work. Beautiful scenery and we’re doing our best for the community,” Politi said. “Vigilance is important. We do our best to keep our eye on people and keep them safe out here.”
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