By Ron Hayes
Why do they call it Labor Day when most of us avoid all labor that day?
We sleep late, fire up the grill, sip a little liquid refreshment. And thousands of us go to the beach.
But at least 45 of those Labor Day beachgoers will be working at county parks.
“Labor Day is one of our busiest days,” says Brian McManus, pondering the view from a lifeguard tower at Ocean Inlet Park by the Boynton Inlet. “Those Monday holidays always are.”
McManus is only one of 65 full-time and 33 part-time lifeguards — including 16 women — who rotate among 13 county parks. But he’s been guarding lives a lot longer than most.
“In 1983, I was a part-time pool guard at the county’s Lake Lytal Park while attending Palm Beach Junior College,” he remembers. “I had my application in at the YMCA when the opportunity came to go full-time with the county. And the county had benefits.”
He was 20 then. He’s 54 now, a lieutenant with Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue, and the stories he can tell after working towers from Singer Island to Boca Raton for 33 years will leave you with a whole new perspective on what the job entails.
Ocean Inlet Park, for example. Where you see a beach, McManus sees hazards all over the place.
“This place is so diverse,” he says. “There’s the park, a picnic area, the Intracoastal inlet, the north and south sides of the inlet.” He sighs. “And the bridge jumpers.”
Too often, adventurous teenagers challenge each other to leap from the bridge above the inlet into the waters below, where the tides are especially treacherous.
“It’s a rite of passage,” McManus says. “I’ve had to run over and stop kids from jumping.”
That’s what the patrol calls a preventive action — saving beachgoers from having to have their lives saved to begin with. During March, April and May of this year, lifeguards at Ocean Inlet Park performed only one ocean rescue. But they tallied 1,454 preventions.
During an average year, county guards rescue about 140 swimmers and boaters. But they take 85,000 preventive actions.
“We stop stuff before it happens,” McManus says.
He clears the beach of skim boards and Frisbees, spear guns and glass containers. And because Ocean Inlet Park is so close to State Road A1A, he’s both lifeguard and unofficial traffic cop.
“We’ve got to stop little kids from running up into the road and getting hit,” he says. “The parents are lugging their beach chairs and the kids get ahead of them.”
Mostly, though, he’s a lifeguard.
“The best ones are when you save somebody,” he says, “but the ones I remember are the harrowing ones.”
About five years ago, McManus was in the tower when he spotted people jumping up and down and signaling him from the fishing pier jetty on the north side of the inlet. Two girls had been pulled around the jetty on an incoming tide and two men were clinging to the pilings. But from the tower, he could see nothing, only the frantically waving people.
“You can’t see anything,” he says, “You’re going into a blind rescue.”
McManus ran through the park to the patrol’s 16-foot inflatable rescue boat and headed out the inlet. All four swimmers were rescued.
That was a good day. Some aren’t.
On June 10, 2015, a 3-year-old girl playing in the water off the Intracoastal Waterway side of the park was “in distress.” McManus got the call in his beachside tower and raced over.
“I worked on her from about five to seven minutes, until the fire-rescue medics came,” he recalls. “But I knew she was gone.”
The county offers counseling after lives are lost, McManus notes. But he finds the best approach is to follow all the procedures to a T, so he knows he’s done the best he could, even when his best isn’t enough.
“I try not to let it get me,” he says. “But it gets me.”
The girl and her family were on the small beach by the park’s picnic area. Visitors aren’t supposed to swim there, but they do, despite the dirty water and absence of a lifeguard.
“We tell everyone, read the signs,” says Capt. Robert Wagner, of Ocean Rescue’s South District Headquarters. “And above all, never be afraid to ask the lifeguard questions.”
In more than three decades as a lifeguard — 33 years, 33 Labor Days — Brian McManus has dealt with shark bites, spinal injuries, performed first aid on motorists and motorcyclists, responded to an air-bag explosion and heat emergencies, along with all those ocean rescues the rest of us imagine. He’s even broken up fights.
“Coming to work at Kreusler Park early one morning,” he says, “I found a suicide.”
And yet he’s still not ready to retire.
“I’ve had skin cancers from being in the sun,” he says, pointing to a scar on his chest, “but fortunately the county has good insurance.”
Skin cancers, fist fights, drownings. Is there no humor in a lifeguard’s day? Never a laugh as he sits in the tower?
McManus thinks for a moment.
“Well,” he says, “sometimes guys come out of the water too fast and lose their trunks.”
Brian McManus, a lifeguard at Ocean Inlet Park, talks to snorkelers without a dive flag. They were at risk of being sucked into the Boynton Inlet, a situation that could become serious very quickly. McManus has more than 30 years of service as a lifeguard. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Rescues and more
Yes, they rescue drowning swimmers. But that’s the smallest part of the job. Palm Beach County lifeguards also prevent dangerous situations from developing and perform first aid. Below are figures showing how they spent their time at four local parks during March, April and May this year:
First aid: 433
OCEAN INLET PARK
First aid: 381
First aid: 328
SOUTH INLET PARK
First aid: 289
Capt. Robert Wagner said the unusual number of rescues at Gulfstream Park was due to a shifting sandbar that created riptides on both ends of the guarded area. “We try to get the public’s attention before they are in a rip, but sometimes they don’t listen,” he said.
Source: Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue
NOTE: Lantana, Boynton Beach, Delray Beach and Boca Raton will have their own lifeguards keeping beach-goers safe at municipal beaches this Labor Day weekend.