A Mavericks lifeguard wears many hats over the course of the year
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Big wave-surfers are bad-asses. Same goes for lifeguards, especially when they are charged with dashing between monster waves – waiting for their life-saving millisecond while maintaining the discipline not to daydream about the waves they are missing. When someone is both – and an EMT, a park ranger and a peace officer – that’s downright rare.
During lifeguard training, candidates are urged to avoid entering “scenes” that aren’t safe – they’re no use to the victim if they are injured. At the Mavericks Surf Championship Jan. 12, waves big enough to swallow school buses crashed into the turbulent area known as “The Pit,” where jagged rocks stick out like rusty razors. This area, on a day destined for some of the biggest swells of the year, could be described as one of the least safe scenes in the Pacific Ocean.
Pacific Grove’s Erik Landry is quite comfortable charging into such an unsafe scene. Put differently, Landry is not the lifeguard who stands on the deck warning kids how dangerous it is to dive into the shallow end. He’s the lifeguard who grabs the world’s best big-wave riders from record surf.
Jeff Clark, the “Men Who Ride Mountains” contest judge and organizer who pioneered Mavericks by surfing it for 15 years, chose Landry to lifeguard his event with good reason. Clark knew Landry’s reputation as a highly skilled lifeguard and as the waterman who caught one of the biggest waves paddled into, ever.
Just seeing a picture of the wave Landry caught at Mavericks around five years ago without the help of water craft is an emotional experience. It’s black and almost 50 feet high. On its face, Landry wears a full wetsuit with a hood and crouches on a completely vertical 10-foot board. First, awe hits the viewer – damn, that’s cool – then reality sets in, and fear with it – that man is a tiny, tiny fraction of the size of that wave… any mistake can lead to death. The same wave appeared in two surf movies, Return of the Drag-In and Whipped, and in Longboard Magazine.
Clark feels Landry is one of the few people he can trust to lifeguard this big-wave contest.
“He knows big waves,” Clark says. “He’s a friend in the business of life-saving.”
“It takes a certain person to put their life on the line,” Clark adds. “You have to have an ego to ride big waves, but the guys who surf Mavericks don’t wear it on their arms.”
For $500 and the promise of a free wetsuit from Hotline – which isn’t a lot considering most health insurance deductibles are $1,000 – Landry took a day off from his day job.
He normally would be responding to car break-ins at Moss Landing, rescuing divers from SCUBA accidents or busting poachers at Point Lobos as part of his gig as a State Parks peace officer and lifeguard, patrolling the 26-mile stretch of coastline between Big Sur and Santa Cruz. If not on duty as a “badge lifeguard,” Landry likely would be surfing or busy inspiring others to save lives – he created the Monterey Junior Lifeguard Program in 1994.
“He inspired my path in a big way,” says Brian Gorrell, a former junior lifeguard and now a North Shore Hawaii lifesaver who pulls people out of dangerous situations at world-famous beaches like Pipeline, Sunset and Waimea Bay. “He showed me that I can work and live around the ocean. He’s inspired me to be humble and let my actions speak for themselves.”
Another former junior lifeguard, Tim Petrick, who holds a Marine Transportation degree from the California Maritime Academy, thinks he knows where Landry found the motivation.
“You’re not going to find many people,” Petrick says, “who love their job more than Landry.”
The Saturday at Landry’s newest lifeguard post was glorious. The wind was light, the tide was high and the weather was beautiful. But even those factors couldn’t betray the menace of the towering waves.
Halfway through the eerily ideal day, Garrett McNamara, winner of the Billabong XXL Biggest Wave of the year award in ’07, wore a wipeout on a full 35-footer, enough to kill a physically fit surfer caught unprepared. Landry and his partner swooped in to lock arms with the victim, who they found glad to see a lifeguard.
Landry was happy to make the rescue, and almost as happy to be finished lifeguarding by 2:30pm, which meant – if he skipped the award ceremony – he could to catch some huge waves on his way home.