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Longtime La Jolla lifeguard John Sandmeyer retires with a treasure trove of memories

Now-retired San Diego lifeguard John Sandmeyer guarded La Jolla Shores from 1998 to 2013 as part of his 38 years’ experience.
(Courtesy)

Like with any lifeguard with 38 years’ experience, any time John Sandmeyer drives up and down the coast, memories come flooding back. Having guarded La Jolla Shores from 1998 to 2013, along with other areas across San Diego, he has participated in everything from rescues to run-ins with former presidents.

He was part of the team that created a tsunami evacuation plan for La Jolla Shores (and put it in place one year before the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami) and advocated for construction of the current lifeguard tower.

The first week of June was his last on the force; Sandmeyer retired June 5.

“The retirement of John Sandmeyer is bittersweet,” said San Diego lifeguard chief James Gartland. “He is a great friend and I am happy to see him move on to the next chapter in his life, but I am also seeing almost four decades of rescue experience leaving the lifeguard service. He has been a leader in aquatic and technical rescue for many years and is looked up to by lifeguards all over the country.

“He worked up in La Jolla for many years and the community there really embraced him. He is a hard worker with a big heart who has a passion for the beach and maritime rescue.”

Sandmeyer told the Light that “when I think about the coastline, it seems like every 100 yards there is a story of something that happened there.”

Proving the point, he took an extensive stroll down memory lane between Torrey Pines State Beach and Bird Rock, sharing some of his most memorable experiences.

Torrey Pines Golf Course: “We had a couple up around the golf course that got stuck on the cliff. We got the female hiker stabilized and brought her up to the golf course with our helicopter, and with the male we were able to lower him down to the bottom. The woman was wearing a ring, so when she was up top at the golf course, I said, ‘Your husband is at the bottom and we are going to give you a ride to meet him.’ She said, ‘He’s not my husband!’ took off her ring and threw it to the ground. ‘He was my fiancé!’ She was so mad at him for getting her stuck.”

Black’s Beach: “One day my team and I observed a [vehicle] with blacked-out windows driving at the bottom of the road. We went to warn them that they couldn’t drive onto the beach. They cracked the window and out came a bankroll of IDs and badges, and then two security guards in trench coats, then a single guy, then two more security guards. Turns out the guy in the middle was President Bill Clinton going for a walk on Black’s Beach. I said, ‘I guess you can do whatever you want’ and drove away.”

Scripps Pier: “One of my first rescues was at the Scripps Pier. A guy was hanging on the piling of the old Scripps Pier. I remember thinking to myself that it was one of the most harrowing experiences because I have never seen anyone put themselves in such a bad situation. But we got him off and brought him in.”

La Jolla Shores: “I was on the dive rescue team and participated in a few body recoveries, including one time I responded to a call of a body found at the bottom of the [underwater] canyon. We knew of this diver that had been missing for a month and a half. So these two divers came across him, and instead of bringing the body up, they removed his weight belt to let him float to the surface … and they went straight in and went to the lifeguard station, told the lifeguard there was the body of a diver they had found. That got translated to the crew that there was a diver in trouble, so the rescue boat was dispatched, we brought the CPR kit and AED and, sure enough, and I spot the diver. We didn’t realize until we got there it was the diver that had been down there for more than a month. He had been covered everywhere but his head for the last month and a half, and that was probably the worst thing I had ever seen on the job.”

La Jolla Cove: There was this one day in 1995 that had huge surf, and as soon as the day started we got a call for a missing surfer. … We were looking all around and dispatched the helicopter to look for him — his name was Kyle. I looked over near Sunny Jim’s Cave and there was a board banging against the rocks. I swam in and I told my sergeant I was going to look inside the caves and to get someone to the top [to look down] … and they opened the door to the cave and Kyle was sitting at the top of the stairway all bloodied and banged up.”

Devil’s Cove, near La Jolla Hermosa Park: “A whale had beached itself and there were a couple of nights during which it was a novelty and people came to check it out. But after a few nights, it really started to smell. … We got a Navy ship with a thousand-foot line to help us because you couldn’t get a boat anywhere near there to pull something that big off the beach. We made the news that we were going to pull it out on this one day, and the night before, vandals went out there, cut the tail off and graffitied it. We were going to attach the line to the tail, so we had nothing to attach the whale to [the ship]. We had to put chain around it and waited until high tide and got it out. But that whole summer, that poor graffitied whale was like our mascot.”

Such experiences have taught Sandmeyer that “you can never believe you have all the answers, and the unexpected is always going to happen,” he said. “So be diligent with your training and fall back on that. When the emergencies happen, you see you fall back on your training.”

Sandmeyer said he’s looking to continue his work with Scripps and UC San Diego to identify areas that may be subject to cliff collapse and come up with an action plan, as well as working with the Port of San Diego to increase recreational activities. ◆