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Darkness doesn’t spell the end of trouble in the waters off San Diego.
Boats catch fire, run aground, and sink in the moonlight. Kayakers capsize during sudden storms as they search for fish. Scuba divers get stuck in kelp, riptides snag booze-addled skinny dippers, and every now and then some bonehead decides to jump off the Ocean Beach pier.
At night, the city of San Diego keeps a quartet of lifeguards on duty to respond to emergencies like these. That’s four people to keep an eye on beaches and waterways from Point Loma to La Jolla, compared to a typical summer daytime weekend crew of more than 130.
Now, their numbers may dwindle to two as soon as next summer. Last month, San Diego’s fire chief recommended that the city cut $695,000 from the lifeguard division, including funding for two of the four night lifeguards, in the fiscal year that begins next July.
There’s plenty of debate about whether the various threatened cutbacks were political posturing before Election Day, when voters rejected Proposition D, a sales tax increase that would’ve eliminated the need for cuts. The city still has other ways to find funds to protect public safety. But one thing is clear: The proposed cutbacks would return nighttime lifeguard staffing to a level not seen since the 1990s.
“A lot of people are going to read this and think, ‘What do we need lifeguards for night anyway, and isn’t two enough?’” said veteran lifeguard Sgt. Bill Bender. “Where it’s really going to affect someone is going to be when somebody’s neighbor is out lobster diving at La Jolla, and they have some sort of a problem because they didn’t recognize there was pretty large surf. They’ll send a unit from our headquarters, but it will take a long time for it to get there. People will really notice the effects when their neighbor doesn’t make it.”
For now, four lifeguards — plus a dispatcher — remain in place at night as they work 24-hour shifts. Two lifeguards are up in La Jolla, while the other two are down at headquarters at the inner mouth of the Mission Bay channel.
The night shift can be slow, routine and uneventful.
On a chilly night last month, Bender and lifeguard Jason Cull began the evening part of their shift by making sure their equipment and boats were in working order on a pier near headquarters. They set out on a routine patrol at about 8:45 p.m. in an SUV loaded with lifesaving equipment and drove around Mission Beach and Ocean Beach for about an hour, watching kayakers in the water and people standing around bonfires. They returned to headquarters with no news to report.
That’s pretty standard. The lifeguards acknowledge that nights can be quiet. But if emergencies do arise, they can be doozies, said retired San Diego lifeguard B. Chris Brewster, president of the United States Lifesaving Association.
“Night rescues tend to be a bit different and much more dangerous than daytime rescues due to darkness, lack of backup, cold, etc.,” he said via email. “They can also develop somewhat more slowly and tend to be more serious.”
Night-crew lifeguards report a variety of rescues from just the last few months. In September and October, they plugged leaks in a $500,000 boat and prevented it from sinking, rescued a drunk kayaker who tipped over in Mission Bay and saved four scuba divers in a rip current, said lifeguard Lt. Nick Lerma.
One early morning last winter, kayakers set out early from La Jolla after hearing that yellowtail fish were biting, Bender said. A storm came in, and high winds swamped about seven kayakers who capsized and began to drift at about 5 a.m. Lifeguards arrived and rescued the kayakers.
“They’re hanging on to their kayaks, wondering how they’ll get to shore with hip waders on without dying,” Bender recalled. “A couple of them really came close to drowning because they had so many clothes on.”
Another rescue that involved night crew members made big news in October. The United States Lifesaving Association gave National Medals of Valor to four San Diego lifeguards who helped save six people who were aboard a 29-foot sportfishing boat when it capsized in Mission Bay on a November morning last year.
If the cutbacks are made, Lerma said, the lifeguard service will have to make big decisions about overnight staffing throughout the city and whether to split the two lifeguards between headquarters and La Jolla. “Do we keep our two lifeguards together to the potential benefit of the victim, or do we separate them at the potential peril of the lifeguard?”
Without backup from a partner, a single lifeguard can face danger during a rescue, especially if he or she must drive a boat to get to the scene.
A single two-person crew at night won’t be unprecedented. In the past, the lifeguard service had fewer staffers — and sometimes no one — on duty at night.
Even if just two people are on duty at one time, the lifeguards aren’t necessarily alone when emergencies erupt. The Coast Guard, police and fire departments and Harbor Police may respond too.
The Coast Guard, however, has plenty of duties other than rescuing people: it deals with missing boats, smugglers, water pollution and even escorts Navy boats. “The Coast Guard can get wrapped up in some weighty situations, and they may not always be available,” Lerma said. “We’re specifically there and ready for emergencies that occur.”
Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify that lifeguard patrols were cut at Black’s Beach during the winter only, not in summer.
Sam Hodgson contributed to this story.