In the early morning, locals come to China Beach for a swim, while others surfcast from the beach and practice tai chi forms on the roof of the Beach Patrol’s crumbling headquarters.
Lifeguards from the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s six-person Beach Patrol will be there too, loading rescue equipment into Chevy Silverado pickups and greeting members of the China Beach community.
This is where the day begins. Before the traditional cup of coffee at Simple Pleasures Cafe, before stationing itself across Ocean Beach and responding to calls between the bridge and Fort Funston, the Beach Patrol feeds on China Beach’s residential energy.
“That’s the nice thing about China Beach,” James Matthews, a Beach Patrol lifeguard, said. “We’ve got a wonderful crew of people who come here and enjoy the place almost every day.”
Matthews, 30, completed his seventh season with the Beach Patrol on Oct. 29th. He’s 6’5”, weighs 250 lbs, and wears a dense beard and long hair. If you’re ever taken by one of Ocean Beach’s infamous rip currents, he’ll likely be the guy who takes you back.
A couple weekends ago, a runner hoping to get in a quick post-workout dip was swept out almost instantly. A civilian bystander called 911, the call was routed to the Beach Patrol, and Matthews and his partner, emerging from some training exercises by Kelly’s Cove, hopped into their truck and rolled along the beach toward Judah St., where the runner had been caught.
“This was a Code 3 situation,” Matthews said, “lights and sirens,” referring to the highest level of emergency.
Matthews grabbed his rescue board, tube and fin belt. The victim’s head was a black dot in the frothy waterscape, bobbing in and out of sight. “It did not look good at that point,” Matthews said. “Entering the water with running shorts on, in the evening, with a fifteen-foot swell—it’s suicide.”
That’s why Matthews sees his role as more of an educator than a rescuer. “I do my best to educate, observe and respond when necessary,” he said.
Nathan Sargent, a GGNRA spokesperson, said the incident rate for distressed swimmers would be much higher if not for the Beach Patrol. “There might be some signage fatigue out there,” he said, “so talking face-to-face with people is, literally, a lifesaver.”
Matthews’ partner returned the victim to shore, and Matthews checked for other victims before returning himself. “It was amazing considering where he was,” Matthews said, “and how helpless he was in the surf. We were pretty stoked on that one.”
Matthews grew up in Stinson. Learning to swim, surf, and fish as a kid, he became highly skilled in reading the water. After three years as a Stinson Beach lifeguard in his early twenties, Matthews moved to the Outer Richmond and joined the Beach Patrol.
The Beach Patrol only has enough funding to operate between March and November, and Matthews doesn’t join until May. The rest of the year, he fishes for crab, salmon, and when it's available, tuna.
He started fishing commercially six years ago, after learning that one of his Stinson friends had bought a boat. Matthews was in Baja at the time. “I was living out of a 400,000 mile 1981 Toyota pickup,” he said.
Matthews sold his boat last season, so last year’s crab shortage dealt him relatively little impact. But his work, which allows him to cast out beyond the Farallones, is something he yearns to maintain. “I will do everything I can to work in the water,” he said. “It’s what I love and what I grew up doing.”
Matthews ended his season last Saturday, Oct. 29th. While his teammates close out the season patrolling the coast and performing light maintenance around the China Beach facilities, he hopes beachgoers will practice caution at the shoreline.
“I’m the guy who has to pull them out when they do get swept out. I’m absolutely happy to do that—it’s my job—but it’s also my job to prevent it from happening in the first place.”
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