“That was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue (WBOR) guard Catherine Gargula said, standing in the hot sand beside Crystal Pier May 21. The other summer lifeguards milled around her, all of them covered in salt, sweat and sunscreen and biting into juicy slices of watermelon.
The squad had just completed the WBOR Challenge 2015, a grueling final test of their physical and mental preparedness to commence watch over the summer crowds at Wrightsville Beach.
The challenge began nearly four hours earlier, at 9 a.m. New guards were put through a warm-up consisting of burpees in the soft sand. Then, the squad split into four teams of six to begin the challenge: running nearly the length of the beach strand and back, completing training exercises at each of the 12 lifeguard stands.
The exercises were designed to test every piece of skill or knowledge they would need as a beach lifeguard, WBOR Captain Jeremy Owens said. The course changes every year, so returning guards do not have any major advantage.
“We do stuff that we see out on the beach strand, to prepare them for the job,” he said. “We pretty much include everything that we did [in past years], but we just change it around — where it is, how it transpires, just like it would in the real world.”
At some stands, the guards encountered physical tests, like relays combining sprints through the sand and swims through the surf. A paddleboard race required each team member to paddle prone-style out to a buoy and back as fast as possible, practicing manipulating the heavy rescue boards during a pressured situation.
At other stands, the guards’ knowledge was tested. Each answered ocean rescue trivia questions or practiced making urgent radio broadcasts in critical situations, like in the event of a missing child.
Many of the exercises tested both physical and mental prowess by simulating various accidents the guards would likely encounter, requiring them to practice different rescue techniques.
During each scenario, one of the guards volunteered to play the victim, whether that was a body surfer with a possible head or neck injury, a swimmer caught in a rip current and submerging, or a surfer sustaining a severe leg laceration from a board fin.
“That looked so realistic,” Gargula said of the mock leg laceration. A guard with a background in theatre played the victim convincingly in that scenario, and to complete the simulation his leg was doused in a thick, dark-red mixture of red liquid and chocolate syrup.
As the guards encountered each scenario, they immediately began communicating to assign roles in the rescue. Teamwork was a crucial part of the challenge and teams had to work together at all times, whether performing a rescue or encouraging each other during the long jogs in between lifeguard stands.
“It gives you confidence to go in and make those rescues when you know you have somebody backing you up that is just as capable,” Owens said. “That’s what’s so great about Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue, is that teamwork aspect.”