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Today, San Diego has more than 270 professional lifeguards on the city payroll. On this date in 1918, it had none — and it paid the price. As a springtime crowd of thousands watched in horror, a riptide off Ocean Beach carried 13 men to their deaths.
The shocking death toll from a single afternoon panicked beachside merchants, spurred the city to take lifeguarding seriously and spotlighted the dangers that the sea has always posed even to those who only want to take a dip.
At the time, Ocean Beach offered more attractions than sand and water. An entertainment complex called Wonderland beckoned to visitors: They flocked to ride carousels, dine at cafes, dance in the pavilion, play carnival games and show off.
Heading to the beach for a good time was a relatively new phenomenon in the United States.
“Entrepreneurs built bathhouses and resorts along the shoreline to attract people to swim and spend money. Prior to that, the beach wasn’t seen as a particularly attractive place to recreate or reside,” said B. Chris Brewster, the former chief lifeguard for San Diego, in an email.
In San Diego, streetcars made it easier to get to the water. At Ocean Beach, only the bravest and strongest tended to go out very far. Locals knew about the dangers of rip currents, as did the police officers who informally served as lifeguards because they were strong swimmers. (The city had no full-time or professional lifeguards.)
But the men who waded into the ocean on a Sunday in May 1918 — including Europe-bound soldiers from San Diego’s Camp Kearny — may not have known the risks considering that many of them came from elsewhere in the country.
Within a day, a whole nation would learn about the dangers off our coast.
Around 3 p.m., a rip current appeared and pulled bathers off their feet. Within moments, men began to drown while a team of lifeguards and volunteers rushed to save lives.
“As the magnitude of the catastrophe became more apparent the crowd swarmed to the head of the tide-rip,” the San Diego Union reported. “The lifeguards and police patrolmen immediately became the center of a rescuing party numbering 30 or 40 bathers. As the rescued were brought to the beach, willing hands wrapped them in overcoats and shawls and men and women bent themselves to the task of resuscitation.”
Sixty people were rescued, but two civilians and 11 service members drowned, including soldiers and sailors.
“These men deserve a better fate, and I do not want to think of one ‘passing over’ without taking two or three huns with him,” declared a military police official, referring to the war against Germany.
In the aftermath, there was only a bit of finger-pointing in the city’s newspapers.
One cop said he warned a group of eight soldiers to stay out of the dangerous water, but the men kidded him and weren’t impressed by the police star on his bathing suit. “These young men of the service are accustomed to the orders of military leaders. They naturally resent civilian control…,” a local merchant said. “This heedlessness caused the tragedy.”
A few days later, Ocean Beach merchants bought a newspaper ad titled “Safety First!” that called for more safeguards at the beach and bemoaned the legal challenge that had prevented a 1916 bond measure from providing money to make the beach safer.
The mass drowning, along with an earlier incident in Newport Beach, boosted interest in the fledgling practice of lifesaving at the beach, as a California State Parks website notes:
As a response, municipalities developed lifeguard services modeled after East Coast lifeguard operations. Numerous beaches had “swim lines” or “lifelines” which were ropes attached to shore that waders clung to. However, lifelines proved inadequate because struggling swimmers were not always able to hold onto them. … Early lifeguard rescue tools included the use of row boats (dory boats), the rescue paddle board, and throw-lines.
San Diego appointed three lifeguards in 1918 after the mass drowning and assigned them to Ocean Beach. The city’s lifeguard service didn’t grow much over the next several decades, but eventually expanded to a staff of hundreds.
“What is important to understand is this: The ocean conditions and hazards in 1918 and today are essentially the same, but beach attendance is certainly exponentially greater,” said Brewster, the former chief lifeguard. “While some of today’s beachgoing population may be better swimmers, San Diego lifeguards effect thousands of rescues from drowning every year. The lesson of history is that without lifeguards along our coast, the number of drowning deaths annually could be in the scores, if not the hundreds.”