With a seemingly endless string of beaches on the shoreline in Southampton and East Hampton towns, there is always a demand for ocean-certified lifeguards, especially during the busy summer months. And for more than 20 years, both towns have had an excellent way of ensuring they will never have a shortage of well-trained employees, while also doing the best they can to “drown-proof” the communities they serve.
The East Hampton and Southampton Junior Lifeguarding Programs have been some of the most popular and successful summer programs for children on the East End, teaching ocean safety and awareness in an environment that is both fun and productive. For the last two decades, the vast majority of lifeguards who sit on a tower scanning the waves for swimmers in distress, from Ditch Plains in Montauk to Pikes Beach in Westhampton Dunes, have come through one of the two programs, and almost all of them end up paying it forward by returning to coach when they’re old enough.
The programs have become popular for a variety of reasons: parents can rest a little easier during family trips to the beach, knowing their children are armed with the knowledge of how to break the grip of a rip current, or spot another swimmer in distress. For teens in search of a first job, participating in the program is a sort of fast-track to an enviable summer gig, hanging out at the beach all day. And the added bonus of attending lifeguarding competitions, both locally and abroad, gives kids a chance to bond and be part of a team, giving them extra motivation to work out, train and hone other athletic skills.
Hundreds of kids, ages 9 through 15, attend the Saturday morning clinics in East Hampton Town, run at Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett, East Hampton Main Beach in East Hampton Village and Ditch Plains in Montauk. The East Hampton program was started in 1996 by John Ryan Sr. and his son, John Ryan Jr., who have long been passionate advocates for teaching ocean safety, with a goal, as they frequently say, of “drown-proofing” the community.
East Hampton runs weekly training and evaluation sessions at the East Hampton YMCA’s indoor pool, and children who want to join the program have to pass certain requirements, swimming for certain age-appropriate distances with proper stroke technique before they are granted entrance in the program. Southampton Town has similar requirements, including showing the ability to tread water for five minutes without stopping.
Last summer, more that 200 children participated in the program at Indian Wells, and Ryan Jr. estimated around 40 were at Main Beach and around 100 or more were at Ditch Plains. Southampton Town’s program has been around for more than two decades as well, with close to 100 total participants with clinics at several town beaches, including Tiana and Ponquogue in Hampton Bays, Mecox in Southampton and Sagg Main in Sagaponack. East Hampton started its “nipper” program last year, for aspiring juniors lifeguards, ages six to eight, at bayside locations in Amagansett and Montauk, and Southampton Town is introducing a nippers program at Long Beach in Sag Harbor this year, for ages seven to 10.
Both programs culminate with a juniors tournament in August. East Hampton Town hosts its junior tournament at Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett, while Southampton Town hosts its tournament at Ponquogue.
For the juniors guards in both programs who excel at the lifeguarding competitions and are eager to be more involved with the competitive, team aspect of lifeguarding, the Hampton Lifeguarding Association has been taking juniors guards to the USLA (United States Lifesaving Association) Nationals since 2005. In that first year, only a handful of junior guards attended, but in recent years, the HLA — which includes mostly East Hampton Town guards and juniors but plenty of Southampton Town guards and juniors as well — has taken anywhere from 40 to 60 kids to nationals.
Those who are associated with the programs speak highly of what going through it has meant to them, and why they were inspired to return as coaches as well. Amanda Calabrese, an East Hampton native who went through the program, returned as a coach, and has won multiple national open and junior championships in a number of events, and has also competed internationally, said the program in East Hampton is second to none.
“We truly have one of the best junior lifeguarding programs in the world,” she said.
Lucy Kohlhoff, another successful lifeguard who made her mark on the national stage both as a junior and in open competition, said she will always fondly remember her time working as a lifeguard and going to competitions, and added that she met some of her best friends through the program.
“The East Hampton juniors program was one of the highlights of my teen years,” she said. “I also always looked up to my instructors, like Jessie Stavola, Andrew Foglia and Rob Lambert, who helped me tackle any and all of my fears of padding through rough waters and swimming far out in the ocean. I wanted to become a junior instructor to help the next generation become comfortable in the ocean.
Emily Bunce Ward, another standout on the competitive stage, said the value of the program to the community cannot be overstated.
“The East End will always need lifeguards,” she said. “The program is a great way to grow the next generation of guards, to teach the public about ocean safety in general, and honestly just gets families outside and moving. And now that the juniors go to nationals, it’s a great way for young people to connect with other young people all over the country.”
For more information on Southampton Town’s junior lifeguard programs, visit southamptontownny.gov/parksrec, and click on the “parks and recreation programs” link. For more information on East Hampton’s program, visit ehamptonny.gov/264/Lifeguard-Programs-Applications.