It’s More Than Just a Job

 It’s More Than Just a Job

Photo by Bob Malfucci

By Kailey Aiken

New York City lifeguarding holds a special place in Rockaway’s summer culture. There’s nothing more summer-esque than the rows of bright orange umbrellas dotting our beaches, starting on Beach 9th Street and stretching all the way to Beach 149th Street. Much more than just a summer job in our town, you’ll find snippets of lifeguard-related souvenirs all over Rockaway, not just on the beach: a shrine of lifeguard memorabilia in Connolly’s, an orange buoy hanging above the bar at The Wharf, old “No Swimming” Parks Department signs hanging above backyard pools and on garage walls, even Christmas tree ornaments of lifeguard chairs can be found in your typical Rockaway home, just to name a few. So, what exactly does the job entail, and what makes it so special?

Before getting to the beach, both returning and new lifeguards must complete a CPR class and pass the yearly swim test. In the weeks leading up to the test, you’ll find many of Rockaway’s lifeguards at the YMCA, brushing up on their swimming skills. For beach guards, the swim test consists of a 440-yard swim in under 6 minutes and 40 seconds, performing the life-saving carries and releases learned during training, and a written exam. If all goes well, you wait for a call to report to the office on Beach 106th, where you’ll retrieve your “orange.”

Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend marks the official start of the summer season for lifeguards, rain or shine. Although it is a holiday weekend, the weather rarely reaches summertime standards, so the crowds are much thinner than the later-summer weekends.

Returning guards usually return to the same shack each summer, but with recent construction, lifeguards have been moved around from shack to shack much more frequently. Every shack has its own personality and lifeguarding at each is a unique experience. Up at 135 and 149, the average crowd consists of locals and families and guards don’t get many cases (rescues); meanwhile, shacks by concessions like 86 and 97 can be reminiscent of a Florida beach during spring break, and something feels off if a day goes by without at least one rescue.

While there are slight differences in daily procedures depending on your shack, the basic responsibilities and duties remain the same for all lifeguards across Rockaway. Each workday, you sign in at 9:45 a.m. at the shack and receive your operation for the day. You and your partners are responsible for bringing down the equipment assigned to your chair and for setting up.

The beach opens at 10 a.m., and the crowds begin to roll in. Throughout the day, you typically sit on the chair in one or two hour increments and, depending on the operation, may share a walking post with other chairs. When on a walking post, lifeguards walk the shoreline to keep a closer watch on the water and help your partners on the chairs relay messages to patrons. Sometimes, especially when trying to keep people away from the rocks, a walking post is necessary to explain to patrons why the jetties are unsafe to swim near.

On the chair, lifeguards are, of course responsible for watching the water and keeping patrons safe, but it is just as important to be attentive to the other lifeguards in your area.

Whistles and hand signs are used to communicate between chairs and are crucial to alerting other guards to cases and emergencies.

The day wraps up when the beach closes at 6 p.m., and you whistle everyone out of the water, bring all of the equipment back to the shack, and sign out. After the workday, events like softball games, Shack Olympics, and many other lifeguard outings are common occurrences.

To an outsider looking in, the best part of the job would seem to be spending six days a week on the beach, getting your tan on, and maybe having a few people clap when you get out of the water after a rescue. But the actual best part of the job, the reason lifeguard mementos can be found all over Rockaway, are the bonds you form with the people you work with, the friendships that last long past the summer season, and the memories you spend all winter recounting.

More lifeguards are always needed, so if you or someone you know is interested, check out the lifeguard page on to learn more about how you can get started. First, you’ll have to register for a qualifying test, which takes place over the winter before the upcoming summer season. Once you pass, you’ll move on to the training course, consisting of a 16-session, 40-hour program, a CPR course, and final swim test, where you’ll learn life-saving techniques, improve your swimming, and earn your certification to be an NYC lifeguard. See you on the beach and happy summer!

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