Santa Cruz Junior & Little Guards

August 11, 2023

Every summer, beach town kids gather for Little and Junior Guard programs across California and Santa Cruz is no different. Specifically, Little and Junior Guard programs in the City of Santa Cruz attract thousands of kids and an extensive waitlist across two sessions, with a few age groups filling up in minutes (literally!). This joint venture between Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department and Fire Departments is intended to teach kids ages 6-17 about ocean and beach safety through games and drills. And, they get to have a whole lot of fun!

Each session is four weeks long with two different sessions, morning and afternoon, with a different group of kids in each, though kids can enroll in both. Overseen by a pair of Lieutenants, Little and Junior Guard instructors are required to have at least one year of lifeguarding experience and are United States Lifeguard Association Open Water Lifeguard certified, most of which have been through the program themselves. Supporting the instructors is the Captains Corps, a group of 15-17 youth leaders learning the ropes with hopes of becoming a paid lifeguard the next season.

To be invited to the Captains Corps, these kids are tested by a 500-meter swim, which they must complete in under 10 minutes, and an interview. While not every member of the Captains Corps is guaranteed a spot as a lifeguard (they, like all new and returning lifeguards are required to complete a physical test, plus an interview for new guards), it does give them an idea of what it’s like to be a paid lifeguard and a Junior and Little Guard instructor should they choose to apply after they have a year of lifeguarding under their belts.

Junior Guards Compete at Local Competition

Junior Guards compete at local competition.

Beyond the daily programming, the Junior Guards get to participate in local competitions to test their skills they have learned throughout their session against other Junior Guards in the area. For the first session, this competition is hosted at Capitola Beach. The second session, called NorCals, is hosted at Main Beach and draws participants from as south as Santa Barbara to as north as Half Moon Bay. Some of the events include a paddle, a relay, and other beach games. Not only does this give the opportunity for Santa Cruz youth to compete on their own turf, but it also helps contribute to the beach area hotels and restaurants as participants and their families gather in our City.

Little Guards and staff

Little Guards gather with staff members on Cowell's Beach in Santa Cruz, CA.

For the Little Guards, the highlight of their session is “The Big Swim.” The main event is when the 6–8-year-old participants swim with their parents or guardians from the kayak launch deck all the way to Main Beach. It’s a long swim for little limbs, but their path is surrounded by instructors and the Captains Corps, plus floatation devices are permitted. After they make land, there is a celebratory potluck for everyone after they’ve worked up an appetite.

Before this happens, however, all of the instructors and Captains Corps have to get into the water and while swimming is fun and all, they had to step it up a notch to close off the session. To do that, they jump off the (two story!!) Lifeguard HQ on the Wharf, then assume their positions by swimming under the Wharf to the Main Beach side. Traditionally, there are some special guests like Fire Chief Rob Oatey who is notorious for doing a backflip because a cannon ball isn’t quite enough.

Oatey and Oatey 2023

Santa Cruz Fire Chief Robert Oatey does a backflip off of Lifeguard HQ to close out the 2023 Little Guards season.

As you can imagine, it takes a village to support a program as large as Junior and Little Guards and the JG Boosters are a big part of that village. This group is made up of parent and guardian volunteers that support Parks and Recreation as volunteers for NorCals, coordinating merchandise sales, food truck events, and the end of year banquets. Basically, they are the unsung heroes of the program and Parks and Rec definitely thanks them.

Registration for Junior and Little Guards opens in early to mid-April each year and the best way to keep up to date with the program is to follow them on Instagram at @scjuniorguards.

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