CLEARWATER BEACH — This stretch of sand probably was the safest in the entire state last week, as nearly 200 lifeguards from all over Florida converged near Pier 60 for the annual regional lifesaving games.
Eighteen teams, hailing from the Panhandle to South Florida, competed last Thursday and Friday in the James P. “Mac” McCarthy Memorial Regional Surf Lifesaving Championships. They pitted their skills in time trials ranging from swimming to paddle boarding to boat racing.
The lifeguard team from the Panhandle town of Destin finished in first place and moves on to the national competition.
The regional championships, sponsored by the United States Lifesaving Association and hosted by the Clearwater Beach Patrol, was more than just a battle to see which team came out on top. It provided a venue for the participants to learn from, and interact with, their fellow lifeguards.
“The event was a great opportunity for people to learn different techniques and skills from other agencies,” Clearwater Beach Patrol supervisor and event organizer Patrick Brafford explained.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here. Florida already has some of the best lifesaving agencies in the country. But you’re always trying to learn more, to perfect techniques, and this competition allowed us to do that.”
Members of the Destin squad, comprised of professional lifeguards from around the world, including four Australians, a New Zealander and a Lithuanian, echoed that feeling.
Group members, notable for their tiny striped swimsuits and rowdy personalities, said learning from the other skilled competitors was a big reason they enjoy the event so much.
“We have huge lifeguard competitions in Australia with thousands of competitors,” Destin team spokesman and Aussie Cameron Prosser said. “The events are similar, just with different crafts and techniques.”
“But this gives us a chance to learn from the other groups and see what we might be able to do differently. Plus we get to come out and have a working holiday on a great beach!”
Praise for Clearwater Beach was plentiful at the event, as spectators lined up on and under the Pier to get a glimpse of the competitors participating in events such as the rescue board race, the Taplin relay and beach flag competition.
In fact, one woman who came all the way from Flagler Beach to cheer on her son’s team said she hopes to use Clearwater Beach as a model for her hometown.
“I took pictures of your Beach Walk, and I plan to show them to our planning committee back home as an example of the right way to do it,” Roseanne Stocker said. “This is a beautiful beach, and they really did a great job with this event.”
Brafford said praise poured in for the hosts, which helped ease the sting of his Clearwater Beach Patrol finishing in the middle of the 18-team field.
“We’ve been overwhelmed with praise, people saying it was such a smooth event, a great venue and a well-run operation,” he said as things got back to normal Monday. “I consider it a huge accomplishment for myself and our patrol.”
Now that the event is over, Brafford said organizers will look at everything with an eye toward their next go-round as hosts.
“We’ll take a step back, see what we can learn from it and what we need to do better the next time,” he said.