Salvavidas del Mar – Ex-pat lifeguard watches over Dominical

The lifeguard stand tells a story with just a glance. Clearly a creation driven by the dictates of necessity, it sits in the black Dominical sand set back from the sea with a battered and Spartan aura, its faded warped wood and rickety homespun architecture giving it the feel of a childhood tree house long abandoned for the responsibilities of adulthood. In the brilliant morning light, it rises crookedly above the beach, looking for all the world like an unmanned outpost. But the tower is far from abandoned, and it is responsibility, not childhood frivolity, that brought it into existence.

Captain Matt Haley briskly jogs up the beach, flotation equipment dangling loosely in his left hand as he makes his way back to the stand. Behind him a rip flows out to sea from the shoreline, a swath of muddy rippled water filled with black sand churned up by its powerful seaward pull. A lone Costa Rican tourist now sits safely onshore, wet from the waist down, and stares at the rip, processing the information Haley has just imparted to him, contemplating the premature ending to his morning swim. By calling the man out of the water before he fully entered the current, Haley has just practiced preventive lifeguarding, a technique that stresses the importance of recognizing and defusing a potentially dangerous situation before it has time to develop. Haley has avoided making a rescue, and in the process has saved energy and also increased the potential victim’s awareness of the dangers of Dominical’s notorious rips. It’s good lifeguarding, and methods like these make Haley such an important fixture at Dominical.

As he climbs back up the stand and settles down amid a cacophony of creaking and popping wood, Haley smiles and continues his story. “I was only 21 when I came down in December of 1996 to train some guards. I heard from my captain back in Jersey that they were looking for someone from the States to do it and it sounded good to me. I meant to just stay for the winter,” he says with a laugh. “I had nothing but two boards and three hundred bucks in my pocket, but I’ve been here ever since. It’s just been such a magnificent change in my life. I mean, I run everyday, surf everyday; I met my wife down here, and now have two beautiful daughters. I guess all I have to do is watch out for skin cancer,” he says half-jokingly while adjusting his umbrella.

It’s a story similar to ones told by many expats around the world, but what is unique about Haley’s is his dedication to a job that benefits the entire local community in a special way. Recruited by the town of Dominical through the United States Lifeguard Association and brought down to train young locals, Haley has put together a core group of guards in Dominical that has done a remarkable job in keeping the beach safe with the limited resources they have at hand. With hundreds of rescues made and countless lives saved, the Dominical Lifeguards have worked hard to provide safety on what was once a very dangerous beach for swimmers. With an average of 19 drowning deaths annually (most of them Costa Rican nationals) before the lifeguards were in place, Haley says, “The locals used to think of this place as Death Beach. But now, with our prevention methods, rescues, and with them just being more educated about the water, their mentality has totally changed. They let their kids come down and hang out and swim. They have a real feeling of security now, and that’s such a good thing because this is something they should be able to enjoy.”

As Haley shifts his weight in the stand to check on a new rip that has popped up, the realities and challenges of lifeguarding in Dominical are brought further into focus. While Haley and his guards have made incredible progress in protecting and educating all who frequent the beach and have performed roughly 200 rescues, as well as preventing uncountable others, the Dominical Lifeguards are constantly hampered by funding problems that perpetually threaten to shut the entire program down. The rickety chair itself is a testament to this problem, as well as the meager beat-up looking rescue equipment arrayed around it. Supported completely through fund-raising in the local community and receiving no governmental support, the lifeguards have to be creative in battling funding issues. They sell t-shirts, have a football pool, and throw fund-raisers throughout the year. The community pitches in and donates what it can, but at times it just hasn’t been enough. The guards have been shut down entirely in the past due to a shortage of support, and the community has only been able to keep them on the beach full time since December of 2001. Even on a full-time footing, the budget only supports Haley and one other guard, with two more guards brought on part-time during holiday seasons. While four men are better than two, the number of swimmers at Dominical and the challenging nature of its waters still leave Haley and his team stretched incredibly thin. He recalls days when he has spent entire six-hour shifts running up and down the beach pulling swimmers from rips, and speaks of equipment and extra manpower for such occasions longingly. He also points out an interesting statistic: “From 1991 to 2001, there were 641 deaths from auto accidents in this country. In the same span of time there were 1,650 drownings. Now that’s over 1,000 more casualties on the beach than on the highway, but the government seems to be interested in only giving money to the police force so they can patrol the roads.”

That said, he sits back in the chair and starts chatting with a group of local kids who have swung by the stand to say hello. With the beach basically empty, the sun out, and no one in the water, Haley seems at ease today and the weight of the responsibilities and challenges he faces washes away in an instant with the arrival of the local boys. But as another rip pops up down the beach, Haley sits up ramrod straight and is on guard again. A swimmer gets up and approaches the sea and Haley is down once more, trotting on the black sand with a battered piece of flotation equipment, just in case.

For more information on the Dominical Lifeguards go to:

Dominical Lifeguards Website.

To donate some much needed funding, please mail checks made out to “Dominical Lifeguards S.A.” to:

Diane Abraham /Lifeguard Donations
Coconut Grove Resort
APDO # 29-8000
San Isidro de General