August 2007

Guarding Hilton Head Island

Author: Paul deVere

We tend to take them for granted. Seated on their high perches at Coligny Beach, Sea Pines Beach Club, the Westin, Palmetto Dunes, they keep a watchful eye over Hilton Head Island’s 13.5 miles of beach and everyone on the beach. You’ll see them in their four-wheel red Beach Patrol trucks. They work for Shore Beach Services, the company that has been taking care of Hilton Head Island’s beaches since 1974. They pick up trash, rent umbrellas and chairs, save lives, and answer questions.

“When’s high tide?”
“Is it jellyfish season yet?”
“Are there really sharks out there?”
“Are those real dolphins?”
“Have you seen my …”

In season, 70 focused, well-trained young men and women keep the island’s beach safe, clean and fun. They are the island’s lifeguards.

“My friends back in Scotland, oh, they’re jealous,” said Richie Winning with his charming brogue and smile. What a dream job, his friends say and ask him how he was able to land it. “In e-mails, they ask me, ‘What did you do today?’ And I just say ‘Beach.’ I try to explain it. It’s simple: you follow what you want to do and get it.” Winning explained.

Working as a swimming pool lifeguard in his hometown of Bo’ness for a few years, he wanted a change. He “Googled” USA beach patrol. “This was the first one that popped up. The next few days, I was speaking to Mike Wagner [Shore Beach Services’ operations manager], and within that week I was preparing to come over here. I haven’t looked back since,” Winning said.

This is Winning’s second summer with the Beach Patrol on Hilton Head. “This is the most amazing island,” he said. “Great people keep the place natural. That’s what it was built for, and the locals make all that happen.” Winning will be spending a year in Santa Barbara in an exchange program with his college back in Scotland. He plans on becoming a sports psychologist.

The toughest part of his job? “Explaining to people that our beach chairs aren’t free,” he said.

Thirty years ago, if someone had told Alan Reece he would still be on Hilton Head Island today, he probably would have laughed. In a sense, he’s still laughing and he is still here as general manager of Shore Beach Services. “It’s kind of nice to walk into your office and to have a sandy floor as opposed to carpeting,” he said.

Originally from Pennsylvania, Reece came to Hilton Head to be a lifeguard for Shore Beach Services. “We came down on a family vacation. I got summer jobs with the Sea Pines Recreation Department. Then someone suggested I ought to come down and be a lifeguard. So, between school semesters, I was a lifeguard.”

Shore Beach Services patrols the beach the entire year, though when the season is over, the staff is reduced to nine. “We spend a great deal of time cleaning and repairing the rental and safety equipment. I also concentrate on staffing for the next season,” Reece said. “We have a large group from Canada, from all over the U.S. and a few from overseas. We’ve never had many local kids—maybe 10 in the past 30 years.”

One of those Canadians is Justin Carver, from London, Ontario. This is his fourth summer. When he’s not lifeguarding, he goes to school at the University of Western Ontario where he’s studying psychology and philosophy. He, too, “Googled” for a lifeguard job and found Hilton Head on the Internet. “I never had heard of Hilton Head before and had no idea what to expect. When I got down here, I just fell in love with it.” said Carver. His station is at the Sea Pines Beach Club. “Love to talk to people—that’s one of the perks of the job,” he said.

When he talks about Hilton Head, he talks like a devout islander. If there is one thing can put him off, it is the way a few visitors treat his turf: “If they don’t show respect for the island itself, like picking up trash. They should leave it like it was when they came,” Carver said.

“I thoroughly enjoy it here, especially the hospitality. Everyone is always willing to help you out, from the executives down to the interns. But the best thing is I get to hang out with 70 lifeguards; it’s like family. I look forward to seeing them next year, and the year after that. You miss this place. When you come back, it feels like you’re coming home,” Carver said.

Third year lifeguard, Lauren Buck, agrees with Carver about littering the beach. “Pick up your trash,” she said. “I don’t like it when people bring glass to my beach” The lifeguards definitely feel a sense of ownership to the beach, a quality that helps the island maintain its reputation as a popular family destination.

Buck’s biggest perks are being outside all summer and meeting people. She also enjoys what Hilton Head is. “Everything is so beautiful. Everywhere you go, it’s so nice—it’s classy. This island is laid back. It’s my kind of lifestyle,” she said.

Buck began her lifeguard career at home in Birmingham, Michigan at the age of 15. A trip to her grandparents’ home on Hilton Head opened her eyes to the possibility of working here. She also has her eyes on her future. She will be a senior at the University of Michigan this fall as a pre-med student. She would like to go to Stanford Medical School, but not until she spends six months in Africa as a volunteer in an AIDS clinic.

First year lifeguard, Cari Heckert, is a graduate of Indiana University in Pennsylvania. After graduation she spent six months in Caracas, Venezuela, teaching English in a small language school. When funds got a little tight and the feeling toward Americans got a little uncomfortable, she took to the Internet for a lifeguard job. “It was one of the first ones that came up on Google, and it started in March, which was perfect for me,” she said. She was ready to leave Caracas.

A competitive swimmer, coach and lifeguard in high school and college, she had never been a beach lifeguard. “I’d never been to Hilton Head. I really enjoy the people I work with. The island is so nice and laid back. The people who come here are really friendly,” she said. “This is a great beach to start with.” While she pursues graduate study in cultural anthropology, next summer she has a definite desire. “I would love to come back!”

“They do love to come back,” Reece said. “I think I know why.” While the island has changed over the years, something hasn’t, he explained. “You know, deep down, it seems the core of the island. Some of the people and things that attracted me here 30 years ago still hold true.”

It would seem a good part of the “core” is Hilton Head Island’s lifeguards, guarding our way of life.

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