Securing the Shore

Shore Beach Service keeps beachgoers safe and comfortable
June 29, 2023

The widow was well into her 80s, and the temperature had climbed into the 90s when she set out for a walk on Coligny Beach.

A bit later, her daughter and son-in-law grew concerned when she had not returned.

Scanning the shore, they set out to find mom — only to spot her arm-in-arm with a strapping, smiling lifeguard.

Sure enough, she had lost her bearings and was being escorted in search of the family condo along South Forest Beach.

The happy, anxiety-relieving reunion was all in a day’s work for Shore Beach Service, a hardy crew charged with the safety and comfort of Hilton Head beachgoers.

“We always find them — whether it’s adults or children,” said Mike Wagner, owner, president and beach patrol director of Shore Beach Service.

Established in 1974, the service is under contract with the Town of Hilton Head for responsibilities ranging from renting umbrellas and beach chairs to gathering trash left on more than 13 miles of beaches — to lifesaving.

Employees also assist local authorities enforcing beach codes and rules, including those covering pets on the beach at prohibited times.

Bob Bromage, Hilton Head’s director of public safety, said Shore Beach Service cooperates daily with the town’s beach operations, code enforcement and fire and safety units.

“They are, essentially, force multipliers,” Bromage said. “Their contribution is essential to safety on those beaches.”

Add to that: watchdogging the shoreline environment by spotting the movement of endangered sea turtles (nesting season is May through October), instructing visitors against collecting sand dollars, stocking beach containers with doggy bags for pet waste and removing mammals stranded in the sand

But Beach Service is best known for its corps of lifeguards, operating on land, water and on foot, in trucks, beach vehicles and on high chairs rising above the shore.
During summer months, when locals and visitors descend on Hilton Head’s popular beaches, Beach Service employment “swells” to more than 100, Wagner said.
Most days, at least “65 or 70” lifeguards are on the beaches, he added.

Staffers are recruited from across the county and around the world, with lifeguard certification a priority. Beach Service workers are put through physical training and classroom education to boost skills in shore and water safety, and local rules and regulations.

Recruiting talent is a top priority, Wagner said. Conventional advertising for candidates was sometimes ineffective, but “word of mouth” has proven successful in  producing applicants, he said. Time and again summer staffers have referred qualified, job-seeking friends to Beach Service.

Securing lifeguards is essential to the success of Beach Service. It’s no small task.

The American Lifeguard Association said a nationwide shortage of trained and certified lifeguards is disrupting operations at pools, lakes and beaches. The shortage is yet another result of the COVID-19 pandemic that slowed lifeguard recruiting, training and certification.

Wagner said Beach Service has nurtured an effective pipeline for talent through the nation’s colleges and universities — particularly school teams for swimming, water polo, track and tennis. The combination of athleticism and team experience is invaluable, he said.

This year employees hail from around the globe, Wagner said, including South Africa, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Brazil, Canada and Hungary.
Many are student-athletes who sought jobs on Hilton Head after hearing from friends who worked here, he said.

Several schools have become regular sources of employees: Lindenwood University of Missouri; Delta State University of Mississippi and Emmanuel College of Georgia.

Training in the ocean, in swimming pools, in the sand and in the office is designed to produce skilled employees — and fierce competitors. Top lifeguards for Beach Service compete in contests sponsored by the South Atlantic Lifesaving Association. Recent competitions have been held in Jacksonville, Fla., and Virginia Beach.

Hilton Head beachgoers this summer are likely to see Beach Service employees training for team and individual events. It’s a rigorous challenge for men and women that includes a run-swim, 100-meter dash, 2-kilometer run and a beach flags challenge to test agility, speed and determination – “kind of a quick twitch” assessment, said Wagner.

Wagner is the second generation to manage Beach Service, succeeding his father, Ralph, a former Fortune 100 company executive who left behind Chicago winters and relocated to Hilton Head. The elder Wagner bought Beach Service in 1992 after scouring the island for a business to own and operate.

During college days as a business student at the University of Illinois, Mike Wagner worked summers with his father at Beach Service — “always with the idea I would be coming down here.”

After graduating in 1995 with a degree in marketing and business administration, he worked in private business a few years before joining his father full-time in 1998.

Summer is the busy season, to be sure, with incident reports mounting into the hundreds and thousands. One of the most frequent matters handled by Service workers, according to Wagner, is jellyfish stings (more than 21,000 last year).

Lifeguards are trained to flush the sting with ocean water and a mixture of water and vinegar.

A note to beachgoers: Jellyfish season is expected to continue through the summer and into early autumn.