It's sink or swim for Westport lifeguard season

Town needs nine lifeguards for the season — it has one

By Ted Hayes
Posted 6/1/23

With the summer season here, Westport faces the very real possibility of having to cancel lifeguard coverage at all town beaches for the entirety of the season.

While Westport usually has eight …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Register to post events

If you'd like to post an event to our calendar, you can create a free account by clicking here.

Note that free accounts do not have access to our subscriber-only content.

Day pass subscribers

Are you a day pass subscriber who needs to log in? Click here to continue.

It's sink or swim for Westport lifeguard season

Town needs nine lifeguards for the season — it has one


With the summer season here, Westport faces the very real possibility of having to cancel lifeguard coverage at all town beaches for the entirety of the season.

While Westport usually has eight lifeguards and one head lifeguard from Memorial to Labor Day, Beach Committee chairman Sean Leach said this week that he currently has one guard interested in working the summer, with few prospects to find more in the coming weeks. Though Westport received "three or four" applications from high school students last week, town administrator James Hartnett said, that won't be enough to carry the town through Labor Day with full coverage.

And "if they're all young, we need someone to kind of herd them in the right direction," Leach said. "I hope we have (more) lifeguards, believe me."

Though the town hasn't officially pulled the plug on lifeguard services for the season, Leach is expected to appear before the select board next Monday to finalize a game plan for the season.

"We're three weeks from an opening date and we need to make a decision very quickly," he said. "You're going to get a lot of pushbacks if there's no guards, there's no doubt."

What happened?

Towns up and down the coast have had similar problems recruiting guards for the beach season. In Westport, the problem has been exacerbated by nearby competition and the departure this year of long-time head lifeguard Evan Audette and his staff.

"Last fall we knew the head lifeguard was not going to come back," Leach said. "What we were not aware of until this Spring is that the other eight lifeguards were not going to come back. So we got a late start getting the word out that we needed lifeguards desperately."

Perry Long, a new member of the beach committee and former Horseneck guard, visited nearby communities, colleges, YMCAs and nearly every public organization with a swimming pool, looking for candidates. It was a mostly fruitless search.

"It seems like every municipality is dealing with it one way or another," he said. "I'll continue to do all I can to bring in candidates."

One of Westport's biggest issues is money. The town pays $21 per hour, but that rate of pay can't compete with nearby Horseneck Beach, where the state pays $28 per hour, plus a $600 signing bonus and another $600 bonus if guards agree to stay through Labor Day. In addition, the state covers the cost of lifeguard training for those who stay on board for the season, and "it's difficult to compete with that."

Addressing the shortage issue earlier this spring, the town dropped its age requirement from 18 years old to 16, and talked of bringing the compensation issue to the personnel board, which has the authority to raise salaries on an emergency basis until the next town meeting. However, Hartnett said, the board has not yet addressed the issue.

What's to be done?

If town officials decide to cancel guard service for the season, the move would open a plethora of issues, Leach told the select board.

The first and most important is safety, he said, as "from a safety standpoint that is not a good idea especially with riptides, jellyfish and other assorted things. It can become a problem."

Another is bad behavior, which is normally kept in check by guards who can keep beach-goers in line, tell them to pick up after themselves and call police if things get out of hand.

"If guards are not there there's no one monitoring," he said.

If the town ultimately decides to forego guards, he said, it is possible that police will be able to patrol the area more closely or make themselves available to respond to issues as they arise.

In addition, Long said he has spoken to the beach manager at Horseneck, and there is a possibility that guards there could help respond to issues if need be. But those discussions were informal, and no plan is in place at the moment.

In the meantime, Leach said the highway department is making up a sign advising beach-goers at Cherry and Webb that there are no lifeguards on duty. He is also working to get the commission's four-wheel-drive "Gator" vehicle placed in a shipping container at the beach, where it would be accessible for police when they need it. And the town will likely put life rings at Cherry and Webb, at least.

Looking ahead

When Leach spoke to the board this week, Hartnett said he hadn't yet reviewed the three or four applicants he'd received earlier that day to see if they are qualified for positions.

If they are, several board members and Leach suggested, they may be able to cover the town on weekends and holidays, while leaving the beach unguarded at many other times. But until they're vetted, Leach and Perry said, they'll put out what Leach called "a last ditch effort" to try and recruit more bodies.

Long-term, Hartnett said the real issue for the town is creating a culture of service at the beach which Leach said was lost with Audette's departure.

"We need to run the beach differently," Hartnett said. "You can't run a beach like that with a part time (complement). You need a beach manager (and) a head lifeguard so there's continuity year to year. We don't have that right now."







2024 by East Bay Media Group

Barrington · Bristol · East Providence · Little Compton · Portsmouth · Tiverton · Warren · Westport
Meet our staff

Mike Rego has worked at East Bay Newspapers since 2001, helping the company launch The Westport Shorelines. He soon after became a Sports Editor, spending the next 10-plus years in that role before taking over as editor of The East Providence Post in February of 2012. To contact Mike about The Post or to submit information, suggest story ideas or photo opportunities, etc. in East Providence, email