One minute there’s a jellyfish sting to treat.
Then a swimmer ventures too far from shore.
Next, someone asks where to buy a beach chair.
Welcome to the world of a Compo Beach lifeguard.
Westport’s few dozen guards — male and female; high school, college age and older; Westporters, Westonites, Norwalkers, Wiltonites and beyond — are like the salt air: an important part of the beach experience, but often overlooked. And seldom noted.
It’s time that changed.
Kaitlyn Mello is a 2005 Staples graduate who is one of 2 assistant waterfront directors, serving under director Brandon Ogiba. The other day she sat in the lifeguard station and talked about her job.
It was a choppy interview — walkie-talkies squawked, and Kaitlyn’s eyes kept roaming the beach — but that’s the way it should be.
“We’ve had a really good summer so far,” she says. “The staff is really strong — a lot of senior guards, and the newcomers are stepping up.”
Compo lifeguards work 8-hour shifts, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.: 1 hour in the chair, 1 hour off (sweeping the beach, tending to first aid, etc.). Each hour, the new shift walks to their posts as a team, then come back in together at the end.
(Burying Hill has 2 full-time guards — important, because of the treacherous tides and elderly population. The Longshore pool has its own staff.)
This summer’s weather has been great. One result: Compo is crammed.
Things get hectic. Vigilance is particularly important during camp hours. “We work as a team with the counselors,” Kaitlyn says. “There’s constant communication.”
Guards also communicate with parents, when the parents communicate in their own way. “We see moms talking with their friends, or on their cell phones, with their backs to the water when their kids are playing or swimming,” she says as diplomatically as possible. “We try to make sure everyone is watching.”
A major guard issue is swimmers who think the buoys are too close — especially at low tide. “It’s our discretion how far out to allow people,” Kaitlyn explains. “High tide can get pretty deep. There’s no reason to go too far.”
Also big: enforcing the no-fishing ban, and keeping boats from coming too near.
Injuries have been minor this year. One man slipped on the jetty; a volleyball player dislocated his shoulder. The guards are primary caregivers until EMS arrives.
Guards drill every weekday, unless the beach is too crowded or they can’t spare anyone. They practice rescues, CPR and other emergencies. The time always changes; sometimes volunteers of different ages help out.
Much of the guards’ job is public relations. They answer questions, explain and enforce rules, and do their best to make the beach experience a great one for the enormous variety of folks who swim, play, stroll, picnic and do whatever else they do every day.
That’s not always easy, particularly this year with its surge of out-of-town guests.
“We’ve seen, and the main gate agrees, a lot of people from New York and other places,” Kaitlyn says. “And a lot of people walk over from the train station, or take a taxi. When they ask if they can buy beach chairs, we know they’re not from here.”
The best part of the job is being outside. And, Kaitlyn adds, “I love being able to help people. I think I’m prepared for every situation.”
Including requests like, “Can you remove the jellyfish?”
“I don’t think so,” Kaitlyn says. “They were here first.”