More than 30 years and counting on the beach for one lifeguard

08/17/2012 8:00 AM |

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Ocean lifeguard Sue Halladay of Mattituck, who just turned 55, at work in Westhampton Beach Tuesday.

When Sue Halladay scans the shoreline from her perch atop the lifeguard stand at the Yardarm Beach Condos on Dune Road in Westhampton Beach, even the ocean seems to behave.

Ms. Halladay, a Mattituck resident, turned 55 last week. She’s now the oldest female ocean lifeguard she knows of on the East End, but she doesn’t plan to slow her pace any time soon.

As head lifeguard, she’s in charge of 14 others for an ocean beach and two pools at the Yardarm, where she puts in more than 60 hours each week scanning the sea for endangered swimmers, keeping the other lifeguards in line and even making sure the pool pumps are operating correctly.

“I’ve been a lifeguard since I was 21,” she said. “The ocean keeps you in shape.”

During the winter, Ms. Halladay, the mother of four, works as a special education inclusion teacher’s assistant at Cutchogue East Elementary School. Off-season, she also teaches pool lifeguard certification classes at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where she swims laps in the pool to keep in shape.

She’s been a competitive swimmer and, while living in California, worked as live-in nanny for a young Dara Torres, who at 41 in 2008 was the oldest female Olympic medalist swimmer. Ms. Halladay cites Ms. Torres as one of her biggest inspirations for continuing to work as a lifeguard.

And now Ms. Halladay’s kids are getting into the act. Her oldest daughter, Erin, 31, is an ocean lifeguard, and her youngest son, Eddie, 13, who sometimes accompanies her to work, has completed his lifeguard certification. He can begin working next year. Most members of her Yardarm staff are Mattituck residents who completed her lifeguard certification class.

“She is still on the ocean all these years and has taught half the children in Mattituck how to swim,” said Erin, who tipped off the press to her mom’s achievements just before her 55th birthday.

“I’m going to keep going until they kick me off the beach,” Ms. Halladay said as she checked in on her staff Tuesday. It was her day off, but she usually comes by nearly every day to make sure the beaches are protected.

Ms. Halladay passed the rigorous ocean lifeguard test last August, and will need to take it again next August to keep her certification for another two years. Though she worries that someday she will no longer be able to pass the test, she said she took her initial certification in the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles 34 years ago, in surf far rougher than any she’s seen on the East Coast.

“You’ve got to stay in really good shape. I can beat some of the young ’uns,” she said. “I run four miles a day.”

To renew her certification, she needs to pull a person from the ocean in what’s known as a pack-strap carry and run and swim 500 yards as fast as she can. The certification teachers assign people randomly to serve as rescuees, which means the petite lifeguard has to be prepared to carry someone of any weight or girth.

“You have to be weight-training [to pass the test],” she said.

While guarding the ocean, there are usually four lifeguards on the sand, ready to participate in a four-man ocean rescue. At Yardarm, the most common rescues come when people get caught in riptides, but the lifeguards watch for these and let bathers know where they are. Last year, Ms. Hallladay said, basking sharks were seen off the beach for a short time, but they moved on to Cupsogue Beach, farther west on Dune Road, without bothering swimmers in her area.

Ms. Halladay said no one has ever drowned at a beach she was watching.

“Good lifeguards don’t lose anyone,” she said. “I haven’t needed [to perform] CPR, but you always need to be prepared.”

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