Junior Lifeguards: These Hawai‘i Youngsters Could Save Your Life One Day

Here’s how the junior lifeguard program inspires the next generation of ocean-safety leaders.
Junior lifeguard training
Junior lifeguards run drills at ‘ehukai beach park.


Ezra Sheridan and about 40 teenagers sprint to the sky-blue water at ‘Ehukai Beach Park on the North Shore, kicking up sand as they try to pass each other. Without hesitation, each dives in and swims toward a bright orange buoy 50 meters from the shore, the bathing suits creating pops of color as they bob up and down in the crashing waves.


As the fastest of the group return to shore (Sheridan one of them), they race another 100 meters to an orange flag. Panting and covered in sand, they line up in order of their finish times and cheer on their friends.


Sheridan, 17, wasn’t always so comfortable in the water. That didn’t happen until after his dad signed him up for the junior lifeguard program five years ago. He now wants to make lifesaving his job.


“I like being here and learning from the lifeguards. I love the water now,” says the Waialua High and Intermediate senior. “The beach is kind of everything.”


Founded more than 25 years ago by the city, the junior lifeguard program teaches kids ocean safety skills—from rescue techniques to first aid and CPR. It is not meant for beginner swimmers: To be eligible, participants must be able to swim 100 yards.


The free one-week program, funded by grant money from the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, is offered at five beaches across O‘ahu—‘Ehukai, Mākaha, Ala Moana, Kalama and Waimea Bay—through June and July and has been organized by the North Shore Lifeguard Association for the past several years. Sessions at Waimea Bay are reserved for younger kids, ages 8 to 11, while the remaining are for ages 12 to 17. The Neighbor Islands also organize their own programs.


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Junior lifeguards sprint to the water for a solo-paddle-race drill. 


Many of the skills kids learn are the same ones used by city lifeguards, who run the sessions.


The day we visited ‘Ehukai Beach Park, teens were learning basic first-aid skills and running drills, including the grueling “burner,” a 150-meter swim, followed by the “20-20-20”—20 pushups, 20 situps and 20 squats—and ending with an army crawl in the sand. The instructors swim, drop and crawl with their students, encouraging them along the way.


Bryan Phillips, president of the North Shore Lifeguard Association, estimates that about 40 city lifeguards—a quarter of the current workforce—went through the program as kids. Phillips is one of them. That time inspired him to join the ocean safety team. Now 34, he’s spent 15 years patrolling O‘ahu beaches.


He and other lifeguards also hear countless stories of their students rescuing locals and tourists, using the skills they learned in the program.


“For myself, it’s come full circle,” Phillips says. “I just kind of knew that’s what I wanted to do from a young age … that I could be here in a challenging environment and do very fulfilling work. It’s a cool stepping stone.”


Sign-ups on O‘ahu open at 8 a.m. May 4 and are first come, first served (last year, all of the slots were filled on the first day). For more information, visit oahujrlifeguards.surfsignup.com.