By Mary Jane Fine
Patrick McGlamery wasn’t nicknamed Squid for nothing. A water-baby who learned to swim at three months, he surprised no one when he dived into life guarding just out
of high school. He joined Boca Raton’s Ocean Rescue Department two decades ago
and rose to lieutenant after a dozen years.
Midday on July 18, waves ramped up a rip current that pulled Nicholas Donev under, in front of Lifeguard Tower 17, a usually quiet stretch of beach just south of Spanish River Park. McGlamery, just returned from lunch, was manning that tower.
One of the 215 men and women who guard Palm Beach County’s 47 miles of shoreline — and the lives of those who enjoy them — McGlamery knows the stereotype of his profession: sun-bronzed hunks who collect a paycheck for eight fun-in-the-sun
hours of sunbather admiration. He’s quick to define his job with the tongue-in-cheek one-liner: “a job that’s boring, punctuated by incredible bursts of activity.”
His more serious assessment: “Every day is different, unlike a desk job. The tides are always different. The wind is always different. It’s almost a matter of finding your Zen, just relaxing and enjoying what’s around you.”
On this day, what was different was Donev, a football player at Olympic Heights High School, out celebrating his 16th birthday with friends. A yellow caution flag was flying, but the moderate risk it signaled couldn’t predict the sudden waves that caught Donev and his buddy, Michael Maldonado, just on the far side of the sandbar, intensifying the until-then modest rip current.
McGlamery had kept his eye on the boys. When he spotted one “apparently going after” the other, he radioed a rescue, then launched himself into action. Within seconds, he was shoving a floating device to Maldonado. But Donev had vanished.
Statistics on drowning deaths vary, depending on the source, but according to B.J. Fisher, director of Health and Safety for the Virginia-based American Lifeguard Association, the U.S. records about 3,800 drowning deaths annually, including both ocean and pools.
Danger is nowhere evident on a recent mid-September morning in Delray Beach, illustrating the other end of the life-saving spectrum, a classic green-flag(low-hazard) day: air temperature 79 degrees at 7 a.m., water temperature 84, agentle 5- to 10-mph breeze from the east, just the slightest ruffle of
wavelets. This is the slow season, those lazy, hazy, less-than-crazy days of late summer after the kids return to school and before the snowbirds descend.
At Tower 5, lifeguard supervisor Bob Black scans the water, where one woman bobs up and down close to shore, and a kayaker paddles out but not too far. “As you can see, it’s really calm out this morning. There are no sea pests, no jellyfish or nothing,” says the genial Black. “Today, I think we’re gonna be sittin’ and sweatin’.”
This is not a complaint.
“Whenever I think about being bored,’ says Black, “I think that in a couple of months I won’t be.”
The county’s beaches are guarded 365 sometimes-boring-sometimes-not days a year, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. But a lifeguard’s day begins even earlier, says Bob Taylor, Delray’s Ocean Rescue superintendent. Supervisors start at 7, everyone else at 8. They assess the day’s weather and water conditions; get rescue equipment ready — the watercraft and ATVs, the foam-filled and hard-plastic rescue buoys, the paddleboards and backboards and first-aid gear. They must be EMT-qualified within a year of hire.
And hiring, Taylor says, got easier when the economy got tougher, making better-paying jobs scarce. Now, he gets “dozens and dozens” of applicants for jobs that begin at $12.79 an hour. In the multipart test, a grueling physical challenge eliminates most: “We’d have to go rescue them,” says Taylor.
Rescues, of course, are lifeguards’ huzzah! moments, but avoiding danger is the real goal.
“We practice preventative lifeguarding here, directing people verbally or with a whistle, Taylor says. “That’s our focus now: to prevent people from getting in trouble rather than fishing them out.”
Black employed that method a couple of years ago when, manning North Tower 2, he noticed two people swimming in unguarded water that hid a rip current. He radioed a rescue and swam out. He’d covered 25 yards before the pair, a mother and 12-year-old daughter, screamed for help. And help was right there.
When McGlamery pulled Nich Donev from under the sea, he detected a faint pulse. Seconds later, on shore, he felt for a pulse again. There was none. Other lifeguards arrived. They did CPR. They did chest compressions. They turned him on his side to let water spill from his mouth. He began to breathe on his own.
Within two to three minutes, fire department paramedics were there with a bag-valve mask that gave Donev 99 percent oxygen with each breath. The paramedics transported him to the hospital, where he made a full recovery.
McGlamery recovered, too. During the rescue, he had little time to think. That night was different. “Every muscle in my body was tense,” he recalls. “I couldn’t eat. I was freezing cold. I had to turn the a/c up to 85.
“It was the first time in 20 years of lifeguarding I knew for sure that, without my intervention, this person would have lost his life.”
Two months later, when the Olympic Heights football team played Spanish River High, Donev had a special fan in the stands: Lt. Patrick “Squid” McGlamery.
Boca Raton: 50 lifeguards. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. every day, year-round. 561-393-7820
Delray Beach: 14 fulltime, 19 part-time lifeguards. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. every day, year-round. 561-243-7352
Boynton Beach: Oceanfront Park: 9 fulltime, 6 part-time lifeguards. 9 a.m.-5:15 p.m. every day, year-round. 561-742-6650
Lantana: 5 lifeguards (also responsible for guarding inshore and offshore coastlines of Manalapan and South Palm Beach). 561-540-5731
Palm Beach County: Includes Atlantic Dunes Gulfstream Park, Ocean Inlet Park and South Inlet, Boca Raton.
Lifeguard staff of 60 year-round and 20 seasonal guards oversees 13 ocean and inlet parks from Tequesta to Boca. Most are covered from 9 a.m. -5:20 p.m.