Mark McDermott

Local lifeguards keep Taplin Bell at home

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Members of the winning LA County Southern “A” team surround the Taplin Bell, the perpetual trophy that includes the names of all the winners from 1949 to the present. Photo by Ray Vidal

by Mark McDermott

The swimmers kept them in the race, the paddlers delivered the lead, and the dorymen took the L.A. County Southern Section lifeguard team home through some seriously troubled waters, winning its fifth straight Judge Irving Taplin Medley Relay championship Saturday night north of the Hermosa Beach Pier.

The fact that it was such a well-rounded team effort made it even more remarkable that Jack Bark’s leg in the race stood out. Bark entered the water for the anchor leg of the paddleboard component of the race —  which begins with four swimmers and ends with four dory legs — with the team in third place. He left the water in first place, sending a palpable buzz through hometown spectators and even his fellow guards.

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“He’s the man,” said Tom Swift, one of the team’s dorymen. “The legend.”

Bark, the 24-year-old son of another legend, paddleboard maker Joe Bark, is already one of the most experienced paddlers on the planet. His obsession with paddling began at 4. By the time he was 18 he’d won a championship at the notoriously bumpy Molokai 2 Oahu paddleboard race, and two years later he tackled the Bass Strait, a 190-mile stretch from Australia to Tasmania.

His history with bumps was key at Saturday night’s race, in which seven lifeguard teams from each section of LA County beaches (as well as a team from Cal State Lifeguards and another from San Clemente) competed for the Taplin Bell —  the perpetual trophy that formerly was a ship’s bell on the tanker revered lifeguard Bud Stevenson served aboard during WWII. The race itself dates back to 1936 and was only interrupted from 1942 to 1945 due to the war.

The waves weren’t huge but they were treacherous, making the 79th Taplin race one of the most memorable in recent years.

“I would say that the sets were about 6 foot on the face but what made it very challenging was that it was a very short interval swell that was breaking in about 2 feet of water,” said Capt. Tom Seth, a Southern Section doryman. “Venice broke their paddleboard on Friday night when it hit the bottom. I’ve never heard of that happening before.”

When Bark got in the water, he saw two things he couldn’t help but like: paddlers ahead of him, and bumpy surf.

“I secretly like being behind going into it, because if you are up front you can’t physically make yourself go 100 percent,” Bark said. “But if you are chasing someone, you have to match that speed and catch up. So it kind of forced me, like ‘Okay, I’m going to catch up with them, I’m going draft off them, and then I’m going to catch some bumps and go to the beach.’”

Which is exactly what he did, catapulting Southern Section into the lead in what had been an extraordinarily tight race between the local guards and the Central and Northern sections (from Venice and Zuma, respectively). Bark hunted down the paddlers ahead of him and then pounced on them coming furiously towards the shore.

“I love catching bumps in the dark,” he said. “You’ve got to feel them, so if you don’t spend time in bumps, it’s going to be a little trickier. Luckily I’ve been in bumps a lot, so you can just feel the board and catch waves the whole way in.”

L.A. County Lifeguard Capt. Tom Seth completes the final leg of the Judge Irving Taplin Medley Relay championship Saturday night north of the Hermosa Beach Pier. The Southern Section’s victory earned Seth his record 19th time on the Taplin Bell. Photo by Ray Vidal

Bark’s paddle gave the dory crew a lead, but to keep it they’d have to navigate the crashing surf, which would indeed later cause a thumping collision between two lagging teams and an capsizing of the Cal State dory.

Swift, who with Mike Murphy rowed the first of Southern section’s four dory legs, said there’s a good reason why the most experienced guards man the boats.

“It’s on-the-boat experience, man,” said Swift. “You want old guys in the boat because they are not going to make mistakes. You make a mistake in a dory it’ll cost you at least 30 seconds.”

Bark looked on in admiration as the dory crews launched into the surf.

“They are insane,” he said. “Watching them race is insane and watching them in the surf is just so scary and stressful. So it’s fun. I mean, half these guys were my Jr. Guard instructors nine years ago —  both the Murphys [Mike and brother Brian]. It’s awesome to be on the same team together.”

The first dory faced the biggest waves and maintained the lead. By the team’s fourth dory, the lead was intact but had been narrowed. Zuma rode a wave in that very nearly caught the leaders, but then had a slow transition between the third and anchor dory crews that allowed Southern’s anchor team of Seth and Micah Carlson to get out past the break before their competition had reentered the surf. Southern Section executed quick turnarounds between all four dory crews.

“The turnarounds are where all the equipment gets broken, it’s where the dory boats go upside down, it’s where people get injured —  that’s where all the action is,” Seth said. “Once you get past the surfline, it’s a walk in the park, but on the inside, those transitions are dangerous, and we practice it.”

Seth and Carlson knew the Taplin was theirs for the taking if they could just get out past the break.

“When we got pushed off, the guy pushing us said, ‘There’s waves,’” Seth said. “So I had that on my mind, but I looked over my shoulder a couple times and didn’t see anything. There were some big waves on the outside, so I thought we were out, and five strokes later we went over a couple big waves. And that freaked me out, but when we got over those waves, I told my partner, ‘We just won.’”

In the traditional victory celebration, each member of the team rings the Taplin Bell the number of times each had won. Seth rang the bell 19 times, tying Mel Solberg for the most in the storied race’s history. Swift, although a veteran guard, rang the bell for the very first time. He just moved to California from the East Coast three years ago, fulfilling a lifelong dream.

“I’m on the bell,” Swift said. “This is the California dream. You know where I’m from? The Jersey Shore. Growing up there, freeze in the winter times, surf big surf… I used to read the American Lifeguard magazine. I went to my first lifeguard nationals in 1988 when I was 15 years old, and I met all the California lifeguards —  cool dudes, and that’s where I wanted to go.”

Swift lifeguarded in Florida a few years and spent 10 years in law enforcement before coming west.

“And here I am, an LA County lifeguard,” he said. “This is what I’m going to do the rest of my life…. The lifeguard community is the best sorority or fraternity you could ever join because someone is always helping you. When I started the Jr. Guards in 1980, it was a bunch of WWII vets, and they saw something and encouraged me. And I’m passing that on to these kids.”

The Southern Section team ranged from 19 (swimmers Will Abele and Wyatt Kirchner) to 60 (doryman Mike O’Donnell).

“We’ve got a good team, a lot of guys who just know how to swim and paddle and row,” Bark said.

“So the old guys got it done,” Swift said, “with some young blood in there.”

LACO Southern “A” team, swimmers: Kevin Fink, Ryan Bullock, Will Abele, Wyatt Kirchner; paddlers: Shane Gallas, Jack Bark, Jake Miller, Brian Murphy; Dory Crews: Mike Wurzel & Tyler Morgan, Tom Seth and Micah Carlson, Mike O’Donnell and Jeff Hart, Tom Swift and Mike Murphy.

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