OUTER CAPE PORTRAIT / KEEPING WATCH
JODY CRAVEN / LIFE GUARD / WELLFLEET BEACHES
Life guards watch. They scan the ocean for riptides and swimmers in trouble; they look back at the beach and dunes for signs of a visitor with an urgent medical issue. Their mission is prevention, to keep bad things from happening; it’s also to rush into harm’s way and rescue us when they do. For more than three decades, Jody has been lifeguarding. It’s shaped his life, even his decision to become a teacher. In the winters, he’s at Nauset High School, teaching jewelry and metal crafts. In the summers, he is free to be back, once more, on the beaches he has inhabited and loved since childhood.
I have a lot of memories about growing up in Wellfleet. We lived right above Le Count Hollow. I was absolutely drawn to the water early. I love the ocean. I just love swimming. I started surfing when I was eight. Learning how to surf really made me appreciate at a young age where I lived. I would just walk out the door and basically down to the beach, and I'd surf as much as I wanted. It was a great, innocent, carefree time for me,
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I've been lifeguarding for 31 years. When I first started, it was a much simpler time. We had to pay attention. And there were times that we definitely helped people get out of some serious situations, especially when we had ground swells and hurricanes off the coast. You’d have these bright sunny days and huge waves, and people inadvertently would get in rip currents.
But we didn't have to deal with the crowds that we deal with now, and we didn't have to deal with sharks. It was what I came to find out was the perfect summer job. I think if you would ask me back when I started lifeguarding, if I'd still be doing it when I was in my fifties, I would probably would've said “Yes” just because I did love it so much.
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The change to the Wellfleet beaches has happened over time. It was probably 2007 when I first got hypersensitive to the fact that we were getting more and more shark activity. I was out off of White Crest on a standup paddleboard, and I got about a hundred yards off the shore, and an 18-foot great white swam right under the paddleboard. And this was before people were seeing a lot of sharks around here.
I equate it to seeing a grizzly bear in the wild. It was very sobering, because it was an animal that dwarfed me. I went back in the water the next day, so it didn't scare me out of the water for good, but it was, it was really cool, but it was also scary. It was an event that I wouldn’t take back. It really was amazing seeing that thing.
I would say in the past six years, the shark activity has really heated up. More and more people are seeing more of them. I think it's a combination of things. The seal population has gotten larger. I'm not a scientist, so I can't say that I think it's related to warmer waters, but some people have cited (higher) water temperatures as a possible influence on having more sharks around.
Sharks are a Massachusetts phenomenon. They're in Cape Cod Bay. They're in Wellfleet Harbor, they're in Plymouth. They’re everywhere. They're finding their niche in all of these areas.
We get asked the question all the time when people come to the beach. “Is it safe to go swimming?” And our response is, “Yes, we think so, but there are no guarantees.” And then they say, “Are there sharks in the water?” And we say, “Well, we haven't seen any, but you should probably anticipate that there are sharks in the water, whether you can see them or not.”
I can't say how safe or unsafe it is. Obviously with the events of two years ago, it was unsafe on one particular day. September 15th, I think was the date. There was a boogie boarder off of Newcomb Hollow that was attacked by a great white. And so, on that particular day it wasn't safe.
You always used to hear, “You're more likely to get struck by lightning than you are to get attacked by a shark.” Well, I think that it depends on who you are, and how often you're going in the water. I used to swim in the ocean all the time. I used to go for not just recreational swims, but I would swim to work out in the ocean. So, I would swim beach to beach. I don't do that much anymore.
It's almost like a loss of innocence, you know, having grown up so carefree and now having to think twice about going in the water. It's definitely put a damper on my life style, as well as many others’ life styles, especially if you're a surfer, kite boarder, or if you just like to be in the ocean. But at the same time, it’s neat to see an ecosystem recover.
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Lifeguarding is being hyperaware, being aware of not just the water, but everything. It’s easy to get distracted. And so, sometimes the hardest thing is just maintaining your focus. Days with waves and swell are less relaxing. It's kind of a Catch- 22, because on those days we want to be out playing in the ocean also, because one of the draws to the job is that you can go in the ocean and do the stuff that you love. We can take breaks and catch a couple waves. But at the same time, that's our most dangerous time. So those are the stressful days, actually.
Developing awareness is not something that happens overnight. It is something that you have to be on the job for a while to be able to see things. You can tell somebody to look at something, but until they see a person get caught in a rip current, or until they themselves get caught in a rip current, they're not really aware of it.
Being responsible for other people's safety is something I don't take lightly. It's humbling to know that you can be responsible for somebody's wellbeing. There are a lot of moving parts. You don't want to miss any of them.
I don't want to make it sound like we're 100% serious, 24-seven. There are a lot of good times, plenty of times that we are laughing on the life guard chair with the people that we work with.
It's hard for me to say how many years I anticipate continuing to do this. I do take it year by year. I wouldn't be surprised if I were doing it ten years from now. If I'm not, it's been a good run. I love Wellfleet ocean beaches. They forged who I became as a person. The job allows me to interact with and be in that beautiful setting I grew up in.