Supervisor describes colorful characters
By Terry Rodgers

December 29, 2007

The cover of “Lifeguards of San Diego County,” a new book written by lifeguard Michael Martino.
San Diego County's first beach lifeguards came from the ranks of law enforcement in the early 1900s, an era when it was considered improper for men to swim bare-chested.
They were followed in the '40s and '50s by “watermen,” free-spirted coastal dwellers adept at surfing, breath-hold diving and other aquatic skills.

Many of today's lifeguards are clean-cut, college-educated men and women who could fit easily into the FBI Academy.

Michael T. Martino, author of the new book “Lifeguards of San Diego County,” is a product of this latest evolution.

He works as a lifeguard supervisor at Silver Strand State Beach and teaches at the regional lifeguard academy. His pool workouts are similar to the underwater, breath-holding sprints of big-wave surfers. His body has the well-honed muscle tone of a triathlete.

He also holds a master's degree in English literature and moonlights as an author.

“Many lifeguards today are incredibly well-educated and deep thinkers,” Martino, 41, said. “After all, they have a lot of time (on the job) to think.”

Book signing for “Lifeguards of San Diego County”
When: 2 to 4 p.m. Jan. 6

Where: I.B. Coffee & Books, 704 Seacoast Drive, Imperial Beach

Information: (619) 863-5524

Lifeguards see themselves as highly trained public-safety professionals – similar to firefighters, except they wear swim fins and dash into rip currents instead of burning buildings.

They weren't always so straight-laced.

Until the early '90s, lifeguards in Del Mar used to ambush their captain with a pie in the face at the end of each summer if no drownings occurred.

In San Diego, pioneering lifeguard Charlie Wright secretly moonlighted as a professional wrestler named “The Masked Marvel.”

Imperial Beach lifeguarding legend Dempsey Holder, the first waterman to master a big-wave surfing reef called the Tijuana Sloughs, used to train by jumping off multistory buildings.

While characters as colorful as Wright and Holder aren't commonplace, Martino said, lifeguarding gives him abundant fodder for storytelling.

“What we experience on the job is 10 times more interesting than what exists in fiction writing,” he said.

One time, Martino jumped into the surf to rescue a man being pulled out to sea by a rip current at Torrey Pines State Beach. When Martino reached the distressed swimmer, he noticed the man was clutching a strange device to his chest.

After pulling the man ashore with a buoy, Martino realized the swimmer was holding an artificial leg that he had torn from his limb to help keep himself afloat.

“Over the years, I've come to appreciate the absurdity (of such encounters),” Martino said.

NELVIN C. CEPEDA / Union-Tribune
Michael Martino took time out Thursday from his job as a lifeguard supervisor at Silver Strand State Beach. He moonlights as an author.
In summertime, more than 600 lifeguards employed by 11 agencies watch over San Diego County's approximately 76 miles of coastline.

Martino's current workplace is a four-story tower on the Silver Strand. From the top floor, he can look south and see the bullring in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico. To the north, he can spot the Point Loma peninsula.

He and his staff perform 200 to 300 ocean rescues each year at the beach, which he describes as “family-oriented.”

Martino said he has chosen to pursue a writer's life “incrementally.” His résumé shows stints as a house painter and high school English teacher before the lifeguarding career.

His first book was “The LawGiver,” a self-published collection of columns about mildly fictionalized adventures from his 21 years as a state lifeguard and park ranger. The columns originally appeared in his younger brother's self-published magazine.

Martino then began research for a biography of the late Robert J. Isenor, California's first state lifeguard to be certified as a peace officer. After sending a query letter to Arcadia Publishing, he switched gears when an editor expressed interest in a history of lifeguarding in San Diego County.
Arcadia specializes in local and regional history books that are “pictorial essays,” or collections of vintage photos with captions. Each author is responsible for writing a brief introductory essay, then has six months to compile photos and write the accompanying captions.

Martino asked nine lifeguarding services for access to their archives. For some agencies, the collection consisted of nothing more than a cardboard box stuffed with yellowed newspaper articles and amateur snapshots.

Martino culled the photos down to 1,000, then narrowed those to 209 images that appear in his new book. Many images made the final cut because he was able to gather the back-stories that allowed him to write informative captions.

For now, Martino said, he's content with having lifeguarding provide his primary paycheck while dabbling in writing.

“I still respect and love lifeguarding,” he said. “I want to be just as excited about this job on my last day as I was on my first day.”


Terry Rodgers: (619) 542-4566; [email protected]