Lifeguard Lineage: Earnest clan makes guarding La Jolla’s beaches a family affair

By Ashley Mackin

When it comes to being a lifeguard, the Earnest family of Rancho Peñasquitos sees the service as a familial calling. John Earnest and his son, James Earnest, both guard La Jolla beaches during the summer, and John’s daughter, Megan Earnest, tries out for the service this year. Patrolling Ocean Beach is John’s brother, James Earnest.

Having grown up playing in the water in Costa Mesa, the patriarchal Earnest brothers (John and James) joined the lifeguard service in 1984 and were stationed in Huntington Beach. Uncle James transitioned to Ocean Beach after just a few years, but John guarded Huntington Beach for 12 summers. Although Uncle James has been with the service for 31 summers, John took a 15-year break to teach summer school, but continued to think about summer days on the beach.

When John’s son James joined the lifeguard service four summers ago, John had heard enough of the stories without being a part of them. “I got tired of hearing them talk about all the things that were happening,” John said, laughing. So three years ago, John joined the lifeguards once again.

With just a touch of sibling rivalry, Uncle James was quick to point that he got to be his older brother’s instructor when he went through the academy.

“That was good payback for me. My freshman year of high school, he was a senior and all of his buddies would pick on me, so I got to dole out some punishment,” he joked.

“Yeah, that was great fun,” John replied. In addition to his brother, John laughs at the fact that his son has a year of seniority over him in San Diego.

“I got to go through the academy the year before my dad did, which I actually sealed the deal for him to come back,” James said.

Location, location, location

Better still for the father and son duo is James being stationed at La Jolla Cove (sometimes at South Boomer Beach, just a stone’s throw to the south of the Cove) and John nearby at the satellite station at the end of Marine Street.

“I love (guarding the beach at) Marine Street because the crowd changes throughout the day,” John reported. “There is one crowd there in the morning, a different crowd in the day and around 6 p.m. all the locals come by. I love that I know a lot of these people; it’s a good feeling. And besides, I get to work in a place that looks like little Tahiti.”

Similarly, James said he enjoys his time at the Cove, which he refers to as “the rocks.”

“I love working the rocks; the whole La Jolla Cove area is just different. It’s different from your typical beach and so the rescues are different,” he said. “There are a couple of ways to enter the water you have to know about, which sometimes means jumping off the rocks. And a lot of times, you are on your own ... so I like the independence there. If there is a call, you have to be the one on it and know what to do.”

That’s a sentiment shared by his father. Being alone at a satellite station, or one of few at the site, he said, “there are significant medical calls we respond to and you are in charge for a good chunk of time before backup gets there.”

To stay sharp, John said he quizzes himself during downtime. “I ask myself, what if that person right there goes under? What would I say on the radio? What would I get out of the trauma pack? What would I do so there would be a good end to whatever is going on?” he said.

James pointed out that someone broke their ankle at the Cove the day before, and he was the first to attend to them. The smaller beaches of La Jolla — no one more challenging than the other — are managed differently than the larger, more widespread beaches across San Diego, all three Earnest men said. Although guarding Ocean Beach consecutively for 26 years, Uncle James was stationed in La Jolla his rookie year, and even made his first rescue as a San Diego Lifeguard on a scuba diver at the Children’s Pool.

“Each beach attracts a different type of beach-goer. Some beaches are known for not having the best swimmers and other beaches attract really great swimmers,” he said. “Some beaches get really crowded, like Mission Beach, which is solid people, and other crowds are smaller because of how many people can actually fit on the beach.”

Bringing work home

The differences in beach topography and beach attendance make for some interesting after-work banter for the Earnest family, who often sit down at the end of the day and swap stories. Which sometimes means phone calls to grandmother Earnest — with the two brothers telling her who did a better job — and a little ribbing over radio presence and calls.

“I let him know when he sounded like a doofus,” John said of his son. “But don’t worry, Megan, we won’t do that to you,” he assured his daughter.

Based on stories from the men in her family, Megan, 17, said she isn’t sure where she would like to work, but “La Jolla sounds cool.”

Having families participate in the lifeguard service is not uncommon, Uncle James said, because “water people raise water people. There have been numerous fathers and sons, and husbands and wives. It’s just too fun of a job to not share it with loved ones.”

Also common among summertime lifeguards is teaching during the non-summer months. John teaches AP physics at Mt. Carmel High School and Uncle James teaches broadcast journalism at Mira Mesa High.

But having family in the lifeguard service, John contends, does not lend itself to nepotism. “It’s more like anti-nepotism,” he said, adding family members are thoroughly vetted to make sure they are actually qualified.

Megan will get a chance to prove herself Sept. 4, when she tries out for the Lifeguard Service, having spent two summers as a cadet in the Junior Lifeguards.