Christine Woolbright and Ted Falvey lifeguard at Second Beach during the summer. Both feel like they're making a true difference and part of something special at the Sachuest Point Road summertime hotspot.
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ALWAYS ON GUARD
MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (JUNE 30, 2021) – As they speak about lifeguarding at Second Beach, the eyes of Christine Woolbright and Ted Falvey rarely leave the water.
Although neither is on duty at the moment, Woolbright and Falvey can’t help but check to see how the swimmers in the two-foot waves at Surfer’s End are doing.
The job of watching others, making sure they’re alright is so engrained in them, there are no days off when they’re at Second – or any other -- Beach.
“Sitting on the stand and staying alert and locked in for eight hours requires a tremendous amount of energy,” the Lifeguard Captain Woolbright said. “I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about the job, even my friends will say it ‘Must have been nice, sitting out in the sun and getting paid.’ It’s so much more than that. The sun, the wind, how busy it is, the training, it’s not an easy job. Not at all.”
“Now that I’ve done it a couple years, I compare it to a marathon,” the Lifeguard Falvey said. “Sure, one, two, three days, some people could do it, but to be out here the whole summer, being alert and ready to go at any time, it’s definitely not for everybody.”
How and when Woolbright and Falvey ended up as part of the lifeguard squad at the Sachuest Point Road summertime hotspot might be different.
But like each of the close to 50 guards who patrol the beach between Memorial Day weekend and through the first week of September, they both feel they’re part of something very special. Words “family,” “lifetime friendships” and “here to help others” are mentioned more than once by both.
For Woolbright, lifeguarding at Second Beach just felt right, so much so that it’s been her summer job the last 15 years. A 2008 graduate of Middletown High School, Woolbright grew up around the corner from the beach, so guarding was the next step in a natural progression when she was 16.
“I was on the swim team in high school and some of my teammates were lifeguards here and talked about what a great job it was, how they helped people and it sounded perfect to me,” said Woolbright, who is a high school art teacher by trade. “As I got older, I learned my (late) dad (John) was a guard in South Florida, which I thought was pretty cool. Kind of full circle.”
Falvey comes from eastern Massachusetts and fell in love with Second Beach when he was a student at Portsmouth Abbey, where he graduated in 2020. Now living in Newport, Falvey is a sophomore at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC and on his third season as a lifeguard at Second – or Sachuest – Beach.
“I love this job,” Falvey said. “I’ve always enjoyed being at the ocean and when I first started thinking about lifeguarding, it was one of those things where I knew it was right for me, the ability to help people and being at the beach.”
At a time when some other beaches are struggling to fill lifeguard positions, a big part of what keeps Woolbright and Falvey coming back is the atmosphere among those who work at Second Beach.
Both said everyone gets along and is willing to pitch in if someone needs help without question. They also said the experience and knowledge of the veterans on the crew is unmatched. The expectations are clear and everyone is pulling in the same direction – to make the experience at Second Beach the best it can possibly be.
“You can tell a lot of people really care about this place and we’re no different,” Woolbright said. “I spent a lot of time here growing up and there’s no place I’d rather be than right here.”
“Being a lifeguard here, there’s a lot of responsibility, more than people might think,” Falvey said. “I remember my first day sitting on the chair (lifeguard tower) when there were big waves and that’s when it really struck me.”
Second Beach Lifeguard Manager Meg Flanagan said Woolbright and Falvey were just two examples of the outstanding guards – and people – that work at Second Beach.
“We have a really good team here,” Flanagan said. “That’s the mindset here, how can we make this experience the best it can possibly be and keep people coming back day after day, year after year. We’re very fortunate to have the people here that we do.”
Woolbright and Falvey said there are two shifts of lifeguards at Second Beach, those who arrive at 8 a.m. and work until 4 p.m. and those on from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Expected to arrive 15 minutes early to clock in and pick up their gear, including a walkie talkie to communicate with others, sunscreen, plenty of water and a good hat are also staples.
From there, guards take up their chairs and get to work, serving as the silent eyes in the sky watching for trouble. Training gets mixed in along with alerts from other lifeguards and staff, making sure everyone is functioning as one unit although the chairs are spread out at large intervals across the beach.
Whenever anyone is in the water, that’s where they said the guards’ focus is. Because there are usually so many people in the waves, particularly on hot, humid summer days, guards do an “active scan” of the water. That involves watching everyone in their designated zone of coverage, not just picking one area and focusing on it.
If someone looks like they might need help, that individual gets extra attention whether they’re aware of it or not, until they get out of the water.
“I know one big thing that we’re taught here is to watch out for higher risk individuals,” Falvey said. “No one rule applies to everybody and most people are okay, but when you’re talking about young children, those in their early teens or older adults who aren’t strong swimmers, we’re definitely keeping an eye out.”
Woolbright and Falvey said the guards at Second Beach practice preventative lifeguarding. The thinking is instead of letting someone get into trouble, they said the guards will whistle people in from swimming out too far and other measures to squelch problems before they arise.
As for tips for those at the beach who need help in the water, they said there were a couple keys. One is to draw as much attention to yourself as possible if you’re struggling by yelling, waving your arms and the like. From there, once you know you have the guard’s attention, try to remain calm and relax. That’s because depending on the conditions, you don’t want to tire yourself out before help arrives.
In terms of joining on as a lifeguard at Second Beach, both had suggestions to make that a reality one day. Working out and being a strong swimmer who’s a certified lifeguard were important, they said. Being a team player was crucial too.
“For me, this is home,” Woolbright said. “I’m a beach person and I love the summer. I wouldn’t have my summers any other way. I feel so lucky to be here and work with the people I do.”
“Being a lifeguard is a lot more than just sitting on the beach and watching people swim,” Falvey said. “You’re an ambassador for the community and we all recognize that. There’s an internal drive for each and every one of us to help people and make sure they enjoy their experience here. I know I love the job and I’ve learned so much from people like Meg and Christine, it makes it more than a job. It is a family.”