Hawaii is like a postcard, and its lifeguards are living in it.
I sat with lifeguard Dave Wassel under a coconut tree, and he pointed out to the pristine, flat water. When we met in the summer, his job was pretty chill. But in the wintertime, the waves churn. Imagine wall of water four stories high, moving at 30 miles an hour.
Those are Dave Wassel’s working conditions and it keeps him busy. Wassel works part-time. But, he says he feels like he’s always on duty.
“Working on the North Shore, living on the North Shore, it’s a very small community, so you’re always dubbed as the lifeguard,” he said, recalling a morning when he was enjoying his coffee on the front porch of his beach house. He could see pro surfer Nathan Fletcher tearing up some waves, until a wipeout.
“I actually heard his leg break,” Wassel said. “His board hit him in the thigh as he was riding the wave. He fell and trust me a femur is a very very strong bone, when it breaks it makes a lot of noise.”
Wassel dropped his coffee and immediately went into lifeguard mode. But typically it’s not the pro-surfers that have him running into the water. Hawaii gets 7 million tourists each year. So usually, it’s the guy from Kansas who’s the problem.
“It’s quite obvious if you walk up with a Whammo that you got at K-Mart, you’re at the wrong beach,” he said. “It’s great for spectating, it’s not the day for you to tempt fate.”
And do they ever. North Shore lifeguards do about 2,000 rescues each year. But last year, only three deaths happened at beaches with lifeguard stations. So how much does saving lives in paradise pay?
“Do I make millions? Not even close,” he said. “I’m making about $15 an hour. I always joke around that we do the elephant’s share of work but get paid in peanuts.”
But peanuts don’t pay rent. And while you can still buy a postcard in Hawaii for 50 cents, living in that postcard is expensive. Hawaii pretty much tops the list for most costs — electricity, gas, housing. And the average North Shore lifeguard makes about $35,000 a year. So to make ends meet a lot of the guys do other, less lifeguard-y things, like waiting tables, valeting cars, bartending, or even yard work.
Wassel’s side job is a bit more exciting. He’s professional big wave surfer. But that doesn’t pay much — about a few thousand dollars a month. His wife works, too. But Wassel says he can’t imagine they’ll ever own a home. And he’s made peace with that.
“I didn’t walk down the street and stumble into a pile of money, but my lifestyle is such that you would think so,” he said. “I’ve got a great tan, a beautiful wife, a healthy child and the bottom line is, if I do a certain amount of work and maybe it comes in and saves somebody’s life, you know, that to me is worth millions.”
But he says he doesn’t have the best job on the island.
“If there is an after-life I want to come back as a North Shore dog,” he said. “Everybody feeds them, they get to hang out with all the pretty girls on the beach and do absolutely nothing.”