Jared Sartini is starting his fifth season with the Encinitas lifeguards, following stints in Imperial Beach and on the Oregon coast. A native of Michigan, Jared first started surfing on the Great Lakes before later making a permanent move west. Voted 2022 Lifeguard of the Year by the Encinitas team, Jared put his ELA grant towards his Open Water Scuba Certification, which he then parlayed into a full Rescue Diver Certification in less than a year, thanks to additional training from the Encinitas Marine Safety Division. After a lifetime of surfing and bodysurfing on the water's surface, diving has given Jared a deeper understanding of the water, especially when it comes to extrication and lifesaving operations while being fully submerged.
Let's start at the beginning—tell us how you first became interested in lifeguarding?
Well, I grew up in Michigan and started surfing in the Great Lakes in high school. It's strange for a lot of people to imagine, but the Great Lakes have very similar coastal features to what we have—jetties, piers, rip currents, ports—you name it! August often brings short-period wind swells and rip currents to warm, busy Michigan beaches. When I was 18, I was a maintenance worker at Holland State Park, our biggest local beach, and I ended up having to save a family of six who got stuck in a rip current running along the pier. It was wild because I had this very intense rescue experience before I was a lifeguard or knew anything about open water lifesaving.
Years later, I ended up coming to California because I wanted to surf and escape midwestern winters. I got a position at YMCA Camp Surf in Imperial Beach, teaching kids to surf and lifeguarding on their waterfront north of the city. I had great lifeguarding mentors there: Kyle Millard, a ten-year Virginia Beach lifeguard; Clay Jones, a former Australian lifesaver, California State Parks lifeguard, and 2002 beach flags Australian national champion; and Brennan Perry, a former Encinitas lifeguard. I spent three seasons there, along with a month volunteer lifeguarding in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, and a summer lifeguarding on the Oregon coast in Cannon Beach.
While in Oregon, I finally decided to pursue lifeguarding as a career. So I came back to California, got my EMT certification—and fast forward, this is now my fifth season lifeguarding in Encinitas.
You've seen lifeguarding in so many different locations—has it seemed different in each place?
Every place definitely has its own style, formed by its local conditions and populous.
It’s interesting because drowning is a fairly common thing in the Great Lakes—a few people drown every summer in my hometown alone. Because of that, a lot of people are afraid of the water and there's a lot of misinformation. For example, I grew up always hearing about "undertow", which is this nearly mythical concept, falsely believed to be a constant current under the water's surface that pulls people underwater and traps them against the sand bottom. In reality, swimmers are just experiencing the complex combination of longshore current, breaking waves, and at times, rip currents.
Lifeguards used to be somewhat common on Lake Michigan beaches, but the state pulled all of their lifeguards out of state park beaches by 1993. Most cities pulled their programs as well, but a few cities like Chicago, St. Joseph, and New Buffalo, MI have lifeguards programs currently. Few people are aware that Chicago actually has a very rich lifesaving history, including creating the very first junior lifeguard program! This program concept was later adopted by LA City and County lifeguards, where it then spread further throughout the world.
Oregon, by contrast, is just a different animal. The locals quickly educated me about "sneaker waves" which are basically abnormally large, surging rogue waves that seem to come out of nowhere. These powerful waves push far up the beach and can wash unsuspecting patrons into frigid, tumultuous water. Oregon surf is often burly, cold, and sharky.
The frequency of incidents and amount of rescues in California just makes it more intense, and has mandated a much more organized culture and approach to training and operations. This is evident in the way lifeguards are integrated into the 911 system here. Lifeguards respond to 911 incidents when we're useful or required, even during the nighttime. We work side-by-side fire crews and medics often!
What's your favorite thing about lifeguarding?
What drew me most to lifeguarding was being able to help people with a unique set of skills that I enjoy having—I love being in the ocean, and it turns out that being comfortable and skilled in the water can help people and prevent injuries and fatalities.
The ocean is beautiful but it can become dangerous so quickly, and there are so many people who aren't educated about those dangers. I'm thrilled to be a part of helping to decrease that personal risk for people, and stop what could be a real tragedy for individuals and families.
What's the most challenging part of lifeguarding?
Honestly, the mental endurance of it. Every time you're on the beach, you're operating with this "constant state of unease" as a San Diego city lifeguard once put it so well. Being able to stay calm and make good decisions in the face of uncertainty and sometimes danger—that takes a lot of energy and mental endurance. Making quick and effective decisions, sometimes at the snap of a finger, for 8, 10, 12 hours straight can be very taxing. And the decisions we make affect other people's lives, so we have to make the right ones.
Have you had to use your rescue diving in practice yet?
Not yet in any rescues, but it’s definitely helped my day to day just in terms of covering the water better. It's also been hugely beneficial here, given how many freedivers, scuba, and lobster divers we have on our beaches—it's really added an understanding of that group for me, and I'm much better equipped now to pick up on risk factors and dangers for people diving.
Best beach snack?
Jerky! All the fat and protein, I need it … especially when it’s cold out!
Favorite beach in Encinitas?
I’m a big fan of Beacons. It has a nice old school feel to it, and such a range of people and types of surf culture—it just feels like it’s still a locals' beach, with people out there on all sorts of boards and doing all sorts of water activities.
Something you wish more people knew about lifeguarding?
I don't think most people understand how hardworking most ocean lifeguards are, and how much they've sacrificed to get where they are ... just to sit in that little tower! Even the guards who only work part time or the summer season; even to be a rookie on a San Diego beach, it takes a ton of work to get there. We’re sometimes viewed as slackers or beach bums, but most of us have put in a lot of work and preparation, and we're there because we really want to use our skills to help people and make a difference.