Local lifeguards save lives on foreign shores

On a volunteer trip in February to Mantas, Ecuador, three Port San Luis Harbor District lifeguards put their skills to a challenging test: train a fleet of Ecuadorian lifeguards and save lives in the midst of Carnaval, the country’s largest party.

Nick Bryden, 30, Jeff Fesler, 29, and Michael Brughelli, 27, completed or assisted in about 15 rescues over a week amid 30,000 people playing, splashing and dancing on a three-kilometer stretch of beach. It was just one of 12 beaches protected for a week this year by California lifeguards through the Long Beach organization Project Ecuador, which aims to give Ecuadorian lifeguards the skills to safely guard their own beaches.

At the festival, most Ecuadorians could not swim, but waded deep into the surf while dodging fast motorboats towing children on inflated toys, unaware of dangerous rip currents below.

In an area that has seen 20 drownings per year during Carnaval, this year, no one died on an Ecuadorian beach overseen by an American lifeguard. At Playas, an unguarded beach in a different region of Ecuador, six drownings occurred in one day, according to Brughelli.

Ecuadorian lifeguard trainees included 20 men ranging in age from 18 to 30.

“Their enthusiasm was high, but their experience was lacking,” Bryden said of the group.

In an early rescue, seven Ecuadorian lifeguards responded to one swimmer. They struggled in the waves, tangling their equipment, and the Americans ended up saving several of them.

Nevertheless, the Americans taught the Ecuadorians to judge rip currents and handle rescue equipment, and by the end of the trip followed Ecuadorians on their own successful rescues.

On the busiest days, there was barely any time for training. There were no radios, whistles couldn’t pierce the din of music, and lifeguards were unable to see each other through the crowds — so the men sent boys to run and relay messages to other guards.

Used to working from a tower on a peaceful beach with high-powered radios and backup from Harbor Patrol boats, Fesler said in the height of Carnaval, he felt like a soldier carrying all equipment on his person. The men had duct taped CPR masks onto rescue cans (large red flotation devices), stuffed latex gloves and sunglasses in their shorts, and couldn’t wear shirts or hats that people might take if they tossed them to enter the water at a moment’s notice.

The men realized on the trip just how well Port San Luis had prepared them to save lives. “We don’t get many rescues at Avila Beach,” Fesler said, “but all the training kicked in. Our skills were side by side with L.A. County lifeguards.”

Port San Luis Harbor District has a 69-hour lifeguarding academy.

Bryden found it rewarding to work so closely with his fellow San Luis lifeguards. Between them, the men have 30 years of experience guarding local beaches. Bryden and Fesler have recently moved to Los Angeles and Emeryville, but return to guard Avila Beach on weekends in the summer.

The three men paid for their trips to Ecuador, and Port San Luis Harbor District donated several rescue cans and shirts to Ecuadorian lifeguards. Bryden said they have plans to return next summer.