Name: Kathryn Orchard
Years Lifeguarding: 13
Location(s): Cape May Point, NJ; Destin, FL
My name is Kathryn Orchard and I’ve been an ocean lifeguard for 13 years. I was born and raised in Cape May, New Jersey and started out lifeguarding in the summer of 2006 in Cape May Point, NJ while working alongside my older brother and sister. All three of us were competitive swimmers from the time we were 3 years old and all went on to swim in college on Division I scholarship, so it seemed like the perfect job, and I was quickly recruited by the Cape May Point Beach Patrol to join the day I turned 16. The town I worked in was a small, close-knit community, which meant the size of the patrol was small (under 50 employees) and the number of girls working was even smaller. To put it in perspective, my rookie year, there was only one other girl in my class and five other girls on the patrol, one of which was my older sister. I had learned that during every interview panel, one of the questions the Beach Chief would ask is: “Do you think you would have a problem taking orders from a superior that’s a female or someone that could be younger than you?” When I think back to that, it was so progressive at the time but so necessary. Undoubtedly as a woman in Surf Rescue, you’re going to come across overseeing at least one male at some point in your career.
I worked 8 seasons in NJ, had graduated college, and was interested in lifeguarding for more than just the summers, so I moved down to Destin, FL at the start of 2014 and began lifeguarding for Destin Fire Control District Beach Safety Division, working 5 more seasons. This year, I transitioned to taking over the social media for Destin Beach Safety and I’m going into my second season of not lifeguarding, not to say that I won’t pick up my whistle again. In the 5 seasons with DBS, I’ve dealt with countless life-or-death situations, I’ve had to console strangers watching loved ones be dragged from the water and put in an ambulance, I’ve been yelled at and named called over whistling at people to come in from dangerous conditions, and I’ve been praised for being a woman with athletic abilities. See, the thing about lifeguarding is that it’s completely unpredictable. The environment is always changing, the crowds of people are always different from the day before, and the water conditions are completely out of your control. Not all days are good days. As a lifeguard, and especially as a woman lifeguard, you have a voice and need to use it. You’re the one that knows the inner workings of your beach and can stand your ground whenever you need to. You more than likely have to work twice as hard as a male in order to be taken seriously but can hang with the best of them.
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been asked how old I am or told that I look young, when the conversation initially started with a beach related question. Since I was a competitive swimmer for 18 years, I was confident that I was the better swimmer than most men that I’ve worked with over the years, but people don’t know that just by looking at me. They see a female guarding a beach that is a whopping 5’2” feet and they make assumptions, like thinking I couldn’t possibly be strong enough to bring someone back to shore that is twice my size.
Lifeguarding as a woman is SO EMPOWERING! It’s hard, stressful, fun, scary, exciting and all of these things help to form a passion for the sport. It’s really incredible to see other female athletes at competitions and how large the female population is now. If there were any advice to give to other girls, it would be to push yourself past what your comfort zone is. You’ll find yourself setting new goals, achieving them and then wanting to push further. And that’s how it should be. Keep working, keep pushing, and break that glass ceiling.
Images provided by Kathryn Orchard.