In five decades of lifeguarding, Ed Vodrazka has seen and heard some truly mindboggling acts of heroism and has brought them all together in “Stories from Sea Level” — a book recounting 38 epic ocean tales from San Diego to the Sonoma Coast.
The stories range from valorous, to humorous, to downright bizarre, and shed light on the close knit yet little known world of California’s lifeguards.
Each tale is narrated by Vodrazka, a longtime beach lover who has served all over the coast, but holds Santa Monica especially close to his heart. He still remembers the taste of the first hot dog he had on the Santa Monica pier at five-years-old and the “godlike” lifeguard who complemented his sandcastle building.
Fifty-seven years later Vodrazka has gone on to train countless lifeguards and built close relationships with many colleagues who all experienced remarkable ocean adventures.
Ten of the tales documented in the book highlight rescues honored by the United States Lifesaving Association as Medal of Valor rescues, in which lifeguards risked life and limb to perform their duty.
“I mean these are like the pinnacle of heroism in our profession, and this is a profession where diving into dangerous situations and swimming into rip currents is part of the game almost daily,” said Vodrazka. “I wanted these people to be recognized, which is why I began writing the book.”
While the book is certainly chock full of heroics, Vodrazka assures readers that it’s not just “fire and brimstone stories”, but also captures many of the funny misadventures that go hand in hand with lifeguarding. In his own career, Vodrazka has rescued a Morey eel in a laundry basket, pretended to be a dog to get a rule breaking surfer to stop hiding in the brush, and even performed CPR on a dolphin.
By balancing the comedic shenanigans with heroics and gallantry, “Stories from the Sea” offers readers a unique appreciation of the skills, tenacity, and dedication of lifeguards.
While lifeguards have been risking their lives to protect those of others for years, these stories don’t always draw public attention, which is something the book is trying to change.
Many people don’t realize that although the job comes with many delights, it can also be very traumatizing.
“With every one of the really heavy rescues in the book almost every lifeguard mentioned or admitted when asked to having some PTSD after the event,” said Vodrazka. “This is something that is never talked about and it’s one of the great rewards for writing this book because it really highlights the fact that this is something we need to address with all our emergency responders.”
When he was first training to be a lifeguard in the seventies, mental health and stress was never discussed, but were expected to be silently shouldered. Now when Vodrazka is training young lifeguards he tells them that having an emotional response to a rescue is not a sign of weakness, but one of strength.
Although dangerous rescues are incredibly draining, Vodrazka says they are also the most rewarding part of the job and are what has fueled his desire to continue lifeguarding for the past 47 years.
Most of the time lifeguards can predict and preempt dangerous circumstances, but sometimes mother nature throws a curve ball and immediate intervention is necessary to save a life.
“When we get back to the shore after a critical rescue there is a very powerful moment where it just kind of sinks in that if you weren’t there that person would have drowned,” said Vodrazka. “I don’t know of anything in life that’s more noble than being able to save another person’s life.”
While retirement is looming for Vodrazka, many of his rescues will live on through “Stories from Sea Level”. He encourages anyone who loves the ocean, swimming, or surfing to pick up the book and even consider about becoming a lifeguard themselves.
“I can trace all the great things in my life back to life and into this profession: the house where I live, the wife that I married, and therefore my children,” Vodrazka. “Everything I love to do, work wise and outside of work, it all came through this profession, so it’s been an amazing gift.”