Fighting the Tide

The current is deadly, the crowds are clueless, and the surf’s always up. On a coastline patrolled by some of the nation’s finest lifeguards, the team at Zuma may be the most storied.
  1. Los Angeles County Lifeguard captain Chuck Moore felt a ghost on the nape of his neck one winter afternoon. The stem of the day had arrived at the season’s end on Santa Monica Beach, and the pale sand was empty. Moore was alone, manning a blue tower, when the itch arrived. Something going on behind him. The nearest backup that afternoon was a guard two towers down. Moore had grown up in Topanga Canyon in the 1960s. He’d bodysurfed at Venice Pier, played water polo in high school, met his wife at a swim-team party, and after graduation tested into the county lifeguard service in 1978. That fall day in 1986, he was back on the beach of his youth, stationed in a plywood box and scanning the weekend swarm—on hot days 3,000 people can fill the shingle of sand around a lifeguard tower—looking for potential drowning candidates.

    Scanning is a learned skill. The chubby guy wearing a farmer’s tan and cutoff shorts gets flagged. The dog paddler. The lone woman holding her nose at a wave’s appr...

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