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By Jim Kempton
Rich Chew was a lifeguard for 35 years. Much of his career was spent on the beaches of San Clemente, where with literally hundreds of saves he never lost a beachgoer in all that time.
Back when he was struggling to get a steady gig, he was told that a stint as a lifeguard in Hawaii was a sure ticket to a full-time job here in California. Because of his surfing prowess, he got a seasonal gig with Buffalo Keaulana, one of the legendary lifeguards in Hawaii and one of surfing’s most colorful characters. Rich learned a lot from that job, and he never again felt so passionate about not losing a swimmer for the rest of his career. Rich recounted a story to me like this:
One mid-afternoon, Rich and Buffalo shared a shift. Rich spotted a swimmer along the break line, clearly in serious trouble.
“Looks like that guy’s in trouble,” Rich said.
Buffalo shrugged and looked at the swimmer through his binoculars.
“We’ll see, yeah?”
Within minutes, the swimmer was floundering.
“Maybe we should go get him,” Rich offered.
“Just relax,” Buffalo said in casual response. “No big thing.”
The swimmer was starting to panic. He clawed at the water to keep himself afloat. This was getting critical. What could Buffalo be thinking? Here is this tourist, in a near-drowning situation, and the head lifeguard is acting nonchalant in the face of an impending fatality. Worse, Buffalo didn’t even seem to be looking at the beleaguered swimmer anymore; his glasses were trained on the outside reef, where surfers catch a glorious set of waves.
Sheer anxiety begins to take over Rich. The swimmer is face-down, his floating hair the only visible part of his body, almost hidden, then bursting out above the surface, flailing in primal fear. If Buffalo is trying to teach this guy a lesson, Rich thinks, it may be the last one he ever learns.
Unable to stand the tension any longer, Rich leaps up, grabs a life preserver, launching into rescue mode. Buffalo catches his arm. “Relax.”
“What? This guy is drowning, Buff!”
Buffalo yanked him back into the beach chair.
The current pulled the swimmer almost into the impact zone. This is it, Rich thought. I’m going to witness my first fatality—on my watch. And my head lifeguard didn’t seem to care.
Then, it happened. One of the outside peak waves Buffalo had been watching rolled through the inside and caught the spent swimmer. The power of the swell picked him up like a rag doll, propelled him along the hissing, rollicking backwash, rolled him across the shallows and swept him up onto the steep sandbank. It deposited him, gasping and heaving, not 20 yards from the tower and within easy reach.
Rich looked over at Buffalo, awed by his knowledge of the ocean conditions. The tide, current and swell had conspired to bring this hapless body right to his doorstep. But why?
Buffalo took a long drag on his cigarette. He held it for a long moment, then exhaled, looks over at Rich and says “See, this way, there’s no paperwork.”
Jim Kempton is a local writer and surfer who has just finished First We Surf Then We Eat, a travel adventure cookbook with recipes from all the surfing regions he has visited over the years. And yes, Rich Chew is in it.