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Longtime lifeguard Ed Vodrazka shares guards’ heroism and humor in ‘Stories from Sea Level’

Ed Vodrazka, an ocean lifeguard for 46 years, wrote a collection of 39 true stories.
Ed Vodrazka, an ocean lifeguard for 46 years, wrote “Stories from Sea Level: The Heroic and Humorous Adventures of California’s Ocean Lifeguards.”
(Courtesy of Ed Vodrazka)

“People have no idea what we do. A lifeguard sitting in a tower doesn’t get called [for a rescue]; they have to make the determination via observation whether someone needs to be rescued or not. There’s an incredible amount of responsibility. At any given moment, they are responsible for hundreds of people in the water and they have to know how to assess the swimmer’s risk and be prepared to respond.”

Ed Vodrazka’s 2021 collection of 39 true tales, “Stories from Sea Level: The Heroic and Humorous Adventures of California’s Ocean Lifeguards,” pulls in a reader like the treacherous rip currents he writes about. The stories are thrilling, frightening, harrowing and at times funny, and they won’t let go of you until the last breathless page.

The stories are about ocean lifeguards and span the California coastline between 1969 and 2019. They reflect the guards’ intuitive sense of impending danger, their mental and physical stamina, their compassionate nature and desire to serve the community, and their willingness to place themselves in peril to save lives.

San Diego County has 40 miles of oceanfront and bay shoreline, and lifeguards are tasked with keeping more than 17 million annual visitors safe, with an estimated 7,000-plus rescues per year.

Reading these stories, you learn about the vagaries of the ocean and the extraordinary skills and lengths to which these men and women go to execute a rescue.

“An experienced lifeguard understands the dynamics between human nature, the ocean, the interplay between the tides and surf, the inshore holes and currents, the backwash — it’s all a beautiful, synchronistic thing to observe, until it turns deadly.”

Vodrazka can tell these stories with firsthand knowledge to back them up.

As a California Department of Parks and Recreation lifeguard peace officer, Vodrazka, his wife, Jennifer, and children, Jade and Charlie, lived in the 1927 Guy and Margaret Fleming House in the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve in La Jolla for 20 years.

“I traveled extensively when I was younger … even meeting the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa,” Vodrazka said. “But that’s a long story. I have lived with the wealthiest and poorest people in various countries and found equal kinship with both. I’ve cultivated relationships with people, and that’s opened a lot of doors.”

Vodrazka knew many of the guards he interviewed and he’s lived the stories. He is passionate about the lifeguard service, the unique characters (like “Rambo”), the history, the rescues, the medical assistance and the unsung heroes who breathe life back into people.

“There is an insane amount of vigilance. You have to be there even before the victim knows he/she is in trouble. In those first five minutes [of a rescue], you assess the victim’s condition and you must act. Those moments can at times determine whether the victim will live or die.”

The stories are memorable: the bone-chilling rescues far out at sea in descending darkness, in murky rivers or on jagged cliffs, diving accidents gone horribly wrong, a sinking fishing boat, towering surf … the stories drill through like a pummeling wave and you come to the surface gasping for air and the fear is real.

“Remarkably, we get to peek behind the curtain of life and death more often than anyone might imagine.”

Vodrazka’s sense of humor weaves through the stories, delivering several laugh-out-loud moments. The author, at the behest of a tenacious animal lover, was directed to save a trapped and unhappy moray eel. In the “pirate rescue,” lifeguard “Rambo” is in need of help, having lost his bearings while floating in a dinghy in dense fog at night. There’s the story of the lifeguards called to help a homeless man who was bitten on the behind by his “pet” sea lion the man’s encampment was eight miles inland from Huntington State Beach.

Ed Vodrazka is pictured in 1979.
(Courtesy of Ed Vodrazka)

Vodrazka, who was raised in Los Angeles and lives in Del Mar, became an ocean lifeguard at age 17 and maintained that role in various capacities across several locales for 46 years. He retired in June.

He also is a registered nurse, which has served him well in many medical emergencies.

For the past 12 years, Vodrazka has served as an adjunct professor at San Diego Miramar College instructing emergency medical technician classes for aspiring firefighters, lifeguards and nurses.

His 374-page book is available via Amazon, and signed copies can be purchased directly from the author by emailing ezlifeguard@juno.com.

Vodrazka’s next book is “One Guard Out: Emergence of Lifeguards on the Sonoma Coast.”

Neva Sullaway is a local editor and author of several nonfiction books, including “Chasing Dreamtime: A Sea-Going Hitchhiker’s Journey Through Memory and Myth.”