balboa island junior lifeguardsVisiting from out-of town? Wondering why the ferry is so crowded with kids dressed in matching beach gear? You are witnessing one of Newport Beach’s most valuable traditions – the Junior Lifeguard program!

“Junior Guards,” as it is affectionately known, is an ocean safety program run by the training division of the Newport Beach Fire Department. 1300 kids ages 9 to 16 spend seven weeks of their summer learning about everything from getting in and out of huge waves, escaping rip currents, body boarding safely and first aid. The program is celebrating its 30th anniversary this summer.

Junior Guards is held at A Street on the Balboa Peninsula, so kids from all over Newport are riding the Balboa Ferry to get there. With two sessions (9-12 and 1-4) every Monday through Thursday, there are a lot of kids making the ferry crossings. They are grouped together by age and based on the swim test they pass to qualify. The instructors are all experienced lifeguards and trained to educate these kids while instilling a healthy dose of fear and respect for the water.

It is not all hard work, though. The fun factor is off the charts. Instructors crank music, hold dance parties, spray kids with hoses and constantly crack jokes. The level of authority is impressive, too. Junior Guards must address their instructors as Mr. or Miss, and if they say “yeah” instead of “yes,” down they go for 10 pushups. Speaking of pushups, arriving late or being out of uniform will also cost the kids.

The Junior Guards Competition days are every Thursday, with events such as buoy swims, run-swim-runs, the Wedge Run, and so much more. Kids race against hundreds of their peers, with the winner getting a Quiksilver hat or a gift certificate to Balboa Candy.

And then there’s the pier jump. It has kids shaking in their flip flops from day one of guards. No one knows when it’s coming, and when it’s announced, they immediately line up on the Balboa Pier. All of the preparation and confidence they’ve built has led them to this point. The lifeguards are calm and encouraging as each kid steps up to the edge, looks out onto the horizon and jumps! Lifeguards are waiting below with paddleboards and their group is cheering them on. Watching their fear-filled faces beforehand, followed by exhilaration after they’ve jumped is pure joy!

The season culminates with the Monster Mile, a themed event that has all the instructors and Junior Guards arriving in costume to decorations and music. Then it all comes off so they can get down to serious business. First they run a mile on the sand, then they swim back to the start in the ocean. For the few who win the Monster Mile, it is an incredible feat!

The Junior Lifeguard program is so valuable to Newport Beach. There are almost too many benefits to count – physical conditioning, confidence in the water, respect for the ocean, camaraderie and new friends. Kids also get to experience newfound independence – riding the ferry alone, paying for themselves, walking over to the beach. Then on the way home, they cruise the boardwalk, buying all the “JG Specials” of pizza, candy and ice cream. And the beaches in Newport benefit, too, with generations of kids knowing how to handle the ocean and not put themselves in harm’s way. The purpose of Junior Guards is not for kids to become lifeguards, but so that kids will never need one.