Not many can say that on a Monday morning they wake up, throw on a pair of board shorts and flip-flops and head to work … on their bicycle. For the last three decades, this has been Captain Tom Seth’s reality. Being a Los Angeles County lifeguard is not just a job or a career; it is a way of life—protecting our beaches and saving countless lives.
Despite being a junior lifeguard for only one year, his dream of becoming a lifeguard started at age 13 while admiring his water polo coach’s lifestyle. Tom was a lifeguard by age 19, an ocean lifeguard specialist (permanent lifeguard) by 28 and a prestigious captain by age 33. Tom married a girl he met while lifeguarding on the beach and has passed his love for the ocean on to his daughters, who are both currently L.A. County lifeguards.
Don’t let Tom’s chill attire fool you. A lifeguard’s #1 responsibility is to keep you safe in the ocean. Years of training and on-the-job experience have them on high alert as to what is going on in front of their towers. Terry Harvey, a retired lifeguard captain, affectionately refers to Tom as the “top salty dog in the South Bay.”
Tom won the Medal of Valor award after one particular rescue on a big surf day at El Porto. “There was a giant hole, a rip current, at the bottom of 45th Street,” he remembers. “The surfers were using it to get out. They would jump in the hole that would instantly take them out to sea. The problem was that for inexperienced surfers, it pulled you to the north into the rocks.”
The bike path was closed due to six to eight feet of water in front of it. “A young couple in their 20s with older surfboards headed out into the water,” he says. “The girl knew how to surf, but the guy was soon being dragged and pushed into the rocks.”
Tom saw this unfolding and quickly paddled out to rescue him. “On our way out of the rocks, we got hit by an unbroken wave and got pushed backwards into the rocks and pinballed back down into the water.” Only an experienced lifeguard can make this kind of petrifying rescue.
Over the years Tom has been a regular competitor in the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) National Lifeguard Championships, held annually all over the country. Having competed in at least 15 nationals, Tom has had the opportunity to travel to Florida, Texas and Chicago—not to mention up and down the coast of California. Fortunately the USLA provides the financial opportunity for lifeguards to compete by paying for their travel expenses.
Los Angeles is home to the prestigious Taplin and Intracrew competitions. Both events are run in the evening so as to not interfere with the competitors’ day jobs. A part of the popular International Surf Festival held in the South Bay the first weekend of August, the Bud Stevenson Intracrew relay is a fun event where competitors dress up with a theme.
The Judge Irvin Taplin Medley relay is the more competitive event, and a win comes with some major “bragging rights” amongst the ranks. Taplin incorporates four swimmers, four paddlers and four two-man dory teams. Teams from a myriad of beaches up and down the coast of California enter this highly anticipated event. International teams, including a team from Australia, have even competed.
The sky is pitch black. The ocean is glistening with high overhead lights beating down on erected stadium seating. The piers are lined with spectators watching the lifeguards compete. Signs are posted in the sand demarcating the different competing beaches. All in all the event lasts a few hours, with the older junior lifeguards’ events preceding the pros.
It is tradition that after a team wins Intracrew or Taplin, they hoist their boat high over their heads and take laps around the spectators, beating on the side of the boat like a drum as the crowd cheers in support. The camaraderie created from these intense competitors is unmistakable.
Tom has won this illustrious event 21 times—a record that few will ever come close to reaching. Unlike other people who specialize in one discipline, he paddled for nine of his wins and rowed for the other 12.
Fellow L.A. County firefighter Mel Solberg has also won 21 times. It is a competitive rivalry and friendship that will exist forever. “Whoever wins at the end, we might be a little cross, but we will shake hands, hug and be friends again,” says Mel.
When he isn’t saving lives or competing, Tom loves to surf. He has been surfing for as long as he can remember, and in part this is the reason why he was a junior lifeguard for only one year. It interfered with his surfing.
When there are waves, he has been known to go out multiple times in one day. “Tom can and will out-surf anyone in the South Bay,” says Terry. “Ask anyone who surfs: Don’t ever have a paddle battle with Tom Seth. You will lose every time.”
TOM’S YEAR IN HEALTH
Coffee for breakfast, yogurt mid-morning, sandwich for lunch and a huge dinner
Surf, surf and more surf
Barefoot all day every day
I do 100% of my training at the beach or in the ocean. Haven’t been in a gym in 10 years, and then I think it was for one day as a guest.