La Jolla’s Lifeguard Towers: Shores lookout design gleaned from experience

By Ashley Mackin

When it was time to design the current La Jolla Shores lifeguard tower, there was a lot to consider. The tower had to have all that was necessary to insure public safety amid changes in beach use, population and city rules, based on lessons learned from lifeguards across San Diego and past rescues.

“Each lesson we learn from a drowning has helped us evolve our facilities, our equipment, our processes,” said San Diego Lifeguard Captain Nick Lerma. “In the world of lifeguarding, people drown and then there’s reaction to that.”

Taking these experiences into account, when it comes time to upgrade lifeguard towers (generally every 30 years) architects and contractors must design accordingly.

For example, Lerma said, early installations of lookouts along La Jolla’s beaches often had posts or beams to hold the roof up, the space in between provided the lifeguard’s view. But after a drowning reportedly occurred in Mission Beach in the 1980s (the determined cause was that one of the posts in the observation tower created a visual obstruction) a design change needed to be implemented.

“The resolution was to build a tower that had no obstructions so lifeguards could place themselves in that chair and have a full, panoramic view of the ocean,” he said.

Surfers vs. swimmers

Although trained to get swimmers in peril out of the ocean, as surfing increased in popularity at the Shores, lifeguards had to work with surfers in the water as well.

The first method for keeping everyone safe was to designate separate surfing and swimming areas, which Lerma said met with some resistance. “Lifeguards were telling surfers ‘you can’t be here’ and drawing a line for a surfing area and for a swimming area,” he said.

“Let’s say the surf is right on the line, the lifeguards have the responsibility to keep the swimmers safe and tell surfers they can’t ride this perfect wave into the swimming area.” Signage on the Shores lifeguard tower in the 1970s indicated which areas of the water were for which activity.

Chris Brewster, a former lifeguard at the Shores and current president of the U.S. Lifesaving Association, said in 1975, the City of San Diego passed a resolution that drew a formal line. The resolution designated “The waters of the beach area between the westerly extension of a line 125 feet north of the southern side of Avenida de la Playa and the westerly extension of the northern side of the La Jolla Shores lifeguard station,” as the bathing and swimming zone. The board surfing zone was bound by “The waters of the beach area between the westerly extension of the northern side of the La Jolla Shores Lifeguard Station and the westerly extension of the southern side of Camino del Collado Street.”

The 1980s tower

A new tower was constructed in the mid- 1980s, approximately 100 yards south of the previous structure. A three-story facility (up from the two-story lookout previously used), the new tower had a panoramic view and cost $30,000.

But the tower’s location caused a shift in activity zones. Brewster explained, “The city council resolution (of 1975) used the lifeguard tower as a demarcation line. The city didn’t give a specific location, it said ‘the lifeguard tower,’ but when the tower moved, the resolution didn’t change. So the surfing area and swimming area moved south,” which extended the surfing zone.

That posed a problem for lifeguards stationed at the Shores, Brewster said. “In the summertime at the Shores, when it’s really busy there, the swimmers were the majority users and they were being moved into a smaller area.”

When the council resolution was amended in 1994, lines were redrawn. The new swimming zone was bounded by the westerly extension of a line 125 feet north of the southern side of Avenida de la Playa and the northern side of the La Jolla Shores lifeguard station. The area between the lifeguard station and the north restroom facility was designated a control zone, in which swimming was permitted 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and surfing was permitted only in hours before and after that. The area between the north restroom and the southern property line of Scripps was designated a surfing zone. This put the lifeguard tower in the middle of the areas frequented by swimmers.

The 2013 tower

Due to a steady increase in beach attendance at the Shores, injuries were taking place in larger numbers, meriting an even larger facility when it came time for a replacement. Lerma said of the new $3.8 million Shores tower design, which was finished in spring 2013, “There needed to be an area big enough for 15 or so lifeguards ... and there needed to be an area for them to cook their food because they are there 8-10 hours a day, and the tower had to be big enough for a First-Aid room.”

“In La Jolla Shores last year, we had 100 stingray victims, and that’s just a product of more people at the beach. Everything that used to happen still happens, just in magnified numbers — that’s why we build increasingly larger facilities.” But that is not always a popular option.

“There are all these different regulations, now,” he continued. “You have view corridor issues and residents against building a 30-foot-tall-plus tower, which can be problematic. ... What generally happens is we take our design to the community but inevitably, whatever we propose, will be reduced in size,” he said.

Design flaw fix

The new tower, although reflecting the needed changes and size requirements, has already come across an issue the lifeguards will use as a learning experience.

The type and angle of the glass in the observation deck created distortion issues, including what lifeguards call “ghost images” of people appearing to be on one side of the beach when they are at another, and glare, during certain times of day, during certain months.

The glass will be replaced and re-angled in the coming months and the incident will be noted for the next time the Shores gets a new lifeguard tower.