July 2019

5 Drinks with: Mike Wagner, operations manager for Hilton Head Island Shore Beach Services

Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

He’s drinking: Peanut butter and banana smoothie
I’m drinking:Strawberry and banana smoothie

They’re a ubiquitous presence on the beaches of Hilton Head Island. From their perches, our lifeguards gaze out over a sea of visitors and locals alike, looking to keep them safe from riptides, wildlife, and sometimes their own stupidity. You might not even realize they’re there, but they see you. And under their watchful eye, you can relax and unwind, knowing you’re safe.

Mike Wagner started out with Hilton Head Island Shore Beach Services in 1998, and he’s been overseeing every crop of fresh faces that pour onto our island since then. In his time, he’s seen the island grow and change, keeping his watch every summer.

We met up at Pool Bar Jim’s for a wide-ranging conversation about the myth of the airhead lifeguard, the dangers of wildlife on the beach, the mysteries of dolphin genitalia, and the true dirty work of picking up the trash of millions of tourists.

BK: This is your day off. Did you really want to spend it at the beach?
MW: This is a safe distance. I don’t mind looking at the beach. [Closer in] I’m worried about … then I have to watch every guard and see what they’re doing. I’ve gone both ways with that on days off.

BK: What is your typical day off?
MW: I’m off every Saturday. One day off a week in the summer. That’s kind of the norm for the lifeguards. They’re here to make money. I have a couple of them who are mad at me if I give them a day off.

BK: How do you find these guys?
MW: A lot of it has been them finding us. In the last year, we’ve stepped up our Instagram and Facebook. They let you target ads, and that’s helped a ton. The biggest thing is word of mouth from guards who have worked here.

BK: Is it difficult to keep a full staff?
MW: Last year we were in a bit of a pinch, but we were able to handle it fine. It just seemed harder than in years past. But then I read an article that everyone was having trouble finding lifeguards. This year, fortunately, we almost have too many. Which is a good problem to have. I’d rather have too many and find things for them to do than not have enough.

BK: What are the requirements?
MW: We have them come in with a lifeguard certification. That will give them the first aid [training] they need. When they get here, we give them more training on first aid things. Some are just an expansion of what they’ve received; some are focused on lifeguarding on Hilton Head: here’s what you’re going to encounter.
Beyond that, we require a swim test: a 500-yard swim in 10 minutes or less at the Rec Center. Years ago, we did it in the ocean. The problem was, depending on which direction you go, it either becomes nearly impossible because you’re swimming into the current or way too easy because you’re swimming with the current.

BK: People at that age, in a place like this, are going to have some fun. What’s it like trying to wrangle that many people at their peak party years?
MW: It is tricky. The biggest thing is making sure they understand the importance of the job and the responsibility. Honestly, we haven’t had that many difficulties with it.

BK: Housing has been the big issue for staffing. How are you dealing with it?
MW: It’s definitely been more difficult to find housing for people. We own some condos that we’ll put them in; we’ll rent some and sublease them to them. We were really close to not having enough a couple of years ago.

I went to the meetings with the consultant the town hired. She was good, and I think she understood it pretty well. It’s just hard to imagine what the workable solution is. I saw the other day that the Richardson Group did that thing on Park Lane (workforce housing development One Park); that’s pretty cool. The tricky part for us is most of our people are here for three to four months. We own a few units, but do you want to go buy enough to house our entire staff that will be here in the summer and just have them sit for eight or nine months? It’s a losing proposition.

BK: You’ve been at this nearly 21 years. How much has the job changed since you started?
MW: A ton. I think just kind of the same way the island’s changed. Even sitting here at The Seacrest … I came down here for spring break in college, and it was a little two-story motel. You look at that and the different resorts that have popped up on the beach—The Barony, Grande Ocean, SurfWatch—places like that have made the island busier. I think the biggest thing is just the volume of the work involved. It’s increased every year.

For me, personally, I’m hiring people the same age as I’ve always hired, and I’ve gone from being 25 to 46. It’s like when you hear about millennials: ‘Are they changing, or am I just getting older?’

BK: When is peak season for you?
MW: July is when we, as a company and a staff, are the busiest. I’m busiest in May. I’m getting staff moved into their apartments, doing the training since every new person goes through four days of training on the beach above and beyond their other training.

We’ve also started doing the Junior Lifeguard Program in the last five years. I’ve done more the administration side of that. And, of course, the way I’ve scheduled that is so most of it is in early June before our staff is super busy.

BK: How did that program come about?
MW: We did one back in the early ’90s, and the feedback at the time was, ‘I’m just babysitting.’ We’re a part of the United States Lifesaving Association, and there are a ton of these programs that are done different ways. Finally, I think six years ago, there was one of these meetings and a guy from California said, ‘Get it started. Trust me. It’ll be the best thing you ever do, even just for community outreach.’

We’ve done it a number of different ways in terms of number of days we do the camp and hours we do it; we’ve got Outside Hilton Head involved with it, taking them out to Page Island. That’s been a blast. The kids love that.

BK: So, what are the kids doing?
MW: We keep it fun, but it’s almost like a mini orientation. They’re doing a lot of what our staff is doing training-wise; we’re just simplifying it for them. Typically, we’ll do it at Islanders Beach Park, and we’ll set up a little campsite, for lack of a better term, where they’ll do some bookwork under a tent, then do some of our competition events. Most of the kids can’t wait for it to start up again.

Page Island is all team-building—little activities and kayaking. They’ll build sand mannequins to do CPR on and stuff like that. We’ll take different kinds of fruit, and they’ll do different types of wounds to show what an abrasion is vs. a laceration and then how to treat it.

BK: What is one thing that would surprise most people about lifeguarding around here?
MW: I think that you can get the stereotype of the airhead. We had to fight that. We had the guy last year who went on Big Brother (Tyler Crispen). It was funny because he actually did quite well. He was a great guard. If he could come back here and work every summer, I’d have him back in a heartbeat. He was smart; he was a good athlete, and he could think on his toes.

[The guards] are well-trained. They know what they’re doing. We meet with the fire department all the time and do training with them, and they’re always impressed.

The other thing is, it’s a hard job. I know people think you just sit on the beach every day. I know a lot of people go and sit on the beach for a day then go home and crash—just from sitting on the beach doing nothing, not working. The sun gets to you, the heat gets to you…

There are little things people can do to help us—like picking up your own trash. If you see a can’s overflowing, A) you can tell a lifeguard, B) you can take your trash with you and throw it away at home. But don’t just pile more on top.

Another part of the job is the ordinance advisement. If people would read the signs before they come on the beach, it would make our job a lot easier.

BK: Having spent a Fourth of July on the beach, it seems like the firework ordinance gets pretty soundly ignored.
MW: You know, we’re really not on the beach at night unless we’re on call. We’ll take one of our trailers (eight-foot by 4-foot) on July 5 and fill it up with fireworks. We have extra people on July 5 from 6 a.m. to noon picking up stray fireworks. It’d be a lot nicer if people wouldn’t fire them off. If you can’t clean it up when you leave, you shouldn’t have it on the beach.

It’s like the canopies; those break. I’ve seen people just leave them in place; I’ve seen people leave them in trash cans, which is better than leaving them in place, I guess. But to me, you should have a plan for getting them off the beach.

BK: Those canopies have been an issue with Sea Turtle Patrol as well, along with people digging holes. How much do you work with them?
MW: We work with them specifically on the turtles. We’re letting them know if we see anything wash in or we find some tracks they didn’t see. When we’ve had a whale wash in or a dolphin, Amber Kuehn is our contact.

If we see a large hole, we’ll fill that in. And there are people who will just dig a hole just to dig a hole. We’ll get that stopped … because there are also concerns with a hole collapsing. We haven’t had it happen here, thankfully, but other beaches around the country have had sand collapse. You can imagine digging someone out of a sand hole.

BK: Speaking of wildlife on the beach, what’s the protocol when a gator pops up?
MW: Obviously, we’re not going to swim out and go capture them. We try to get in touch with Critter Management or Sea Pines Wildlife if it’s in Sea Pines. We’ll probably get an alligator on the beach up to 10 times a year. Most of them are little and want nothing to do with humans, particularly when they’re in the water.
A couple of years ago, one morning the people doing our South Beach patrol called in saying they had a really big gator sitting along the water’s edge. I remember calling Critter Management (Joe Maffo). That thing was huge. Once they got it tied up, we ended up hooking that up to my Jeep to pull it onto soft sand where they could get it loaded up on one of our trailers. Its body took up all of the trailer.

We’ve dealt with those and we’ve had whales wash up. And live dolphins. We had an old contact with DNR, before Amber. This guy, Al Segars, was fantastic. One day he was out here with a dolphin that had washed up dead, and he had a crowd around him asking questions. One little girl asked, ‘Is this a boy dolphin or a girl dolphin?’ And he said, ‘Well, their genitalia is kind of tucked up inside, so you really can’t … well, hold on a second.’ And he goes elbow deep in this thing and says, ‘It’s a girl.’

We’ve had a couple rattlesnakes on the beach over the years. Earlier this year we had a non-venomous snake that was about five feet long that one of guards spotted down on Coligny. He just ended up grabbing it by the tail and dragging it. Somebody caught a video of that; we put it on our Instagram feed, and that went all over.

The jellyfish are obviously something we deal with. When you factor in that we have 70 lifeguards up and down the beach, if each of them treats 30 stings, you’re up to 2,100. I remember someone calling from the Packet once, asking me to check how many we had in the last week. I looked at my statistics, and it was 3,000. The next morning, I’m getting a call from someone who saw me in the Charlotte newspaper. It’s funny how things become newsworthy that really aren’t.

We get calls from places saying, ‘I heard you cleared the beach because of a shark sighting today.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, did we?’ It’s a normal thing. There are sharks on Hilton Head. If we see them, we clear the water—it’s almost a daily occurrence somewhere. It’s usually little, so it’s no big deal. We fortunately don’t have many encounters.

BK: Getting back to the jellyfish, can we address a myth? Is the urine thing true?
MW: No, and I’m glad you asked. We’re changing a little bit what we do with jellyfish stings, based on United States Lifesaving Association guidelines and things other agencies are doing. We’ve treated them with vinegar forever.

When most jellyfish sting you, they leave a stinging cell on your skin. A lot of those stinging cells fire, and that’s what hurts, and a lot of them just sit there. What the vinegar is supposed to do is keep those stinging cells that aren’t firing from firing. So, vinegar wouldn’t make your sting feel better; hopefully it would keep it from feeling worse.

I talked to a guy at University of Maryland who’d been researching sea nettle stings for 40 years. Sea nettles are the main type of jellyfish we get here. He said ocean water is going to do the same thing as vinegar—not make it feel better but get rid of those stinging cells. There’s been some research that vinegar makes those nettle stings worse, so we’ll flush it with ocean water.

People have asked me about the urine thing before, and I tell them that the one thing it will do is make you forget you have a jellyfish sting, because now somebody’s peeing on your leg. You’ll have people swear by meat tenderizer, all kinds of things. If it makes you feel better, that’s great.

So just get some ocean water on it and head up to Pool Bar Jim’s and get a few drinks in you for the pain. That’ll probably help.

BK: What’s your favorite part of the job?
MW: My favorite thing is all the new guards coming in. It seems like they keep getting younger, even though they’re not. It keeps me, hopefully, a little bit younger. And all the guards who have worked for me that I still get random phone calls from. It’s also cool to see them stay in contact—guards that came from all over the world who still meet up to do things.

BK: What’s your least favorite part of the job?
MW: It’s gotta be the trash. Most people probably think the town just sends out trash collectors for that. They do. It’s us.

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