Lifeguards are perpetual adolescents, which may explain why so many grown women turn to schoolgirls in their company. Fit, powerful, and just inaccessible enough to be alluring, lifeguards rule the beach—and know it. The Wilson brothers, Bobby and Greg, 22-year-old fraternal twins, and Jack, 25, have been lifeguarding in their family-oriented Fire Island town since they were teens. The twins just graduated Harvard and Jack’s at the University of Virginia law school, but they come back every summer, not for the money ($13 an hour) but for the status, the workout, and the biggest perk: the girls.
“You’re supposed to keep your eyes on the water the whole time,” says Bobby, who has squinty, warm eyes and a placid demeanor, “but everyone looks at the beach, at good-looking girls in bikinis.”
“I’m looking at sand castles,” says Greg with a grin.
Of course, there’s a reason those women in bikinis are so visible; they’re waiting for an opener. How do they signal their interest in the lifeguards? “They’ll stand in the water in front of us,” says Bobby, “dipping their feet in, but they won’t go in.”
“They’ll untie and retie their bikini bottoms,” Greg moans.
“What do you call a lifeguard groupie?” I ask.
Greg thinks for a minute and says, “Jailbait.”
“They love to stretch in front of us,” says Jack, who has the least hair of the three but is the most self-assured. “I’m like, Why are you stretching? You’re walking! You’re not about to run a triathlon!”
Then there are the dumb questions: “What town are we in?,” “When’s high tide?,” and that old standby, “Are there any jellyfish?”
Sometimes the women ask nothing, but strategically place their towels by the lifeguard stand. “They’ll lay them close,” Jack explains, “but not so close it seems obvious, and we’ll look at them in a way that lets them know we see them.”
Even when they meet women at night, the guys use their job to force the girls to come to them. “You get to know women on the beach or in the bar,” says Thomas, a 20-year-old Swiss Jeff Spicoli look-alike. “We say, ‘What are you doing tomorrow? Come around, swing by the chair.’ ”
“What happens if they come by and you’re on the stand?”
“They’ll wait,” says Thomas.
Anne, 30, a graduate student, acknowledges that lifeguards’ appeal lies in their control. “They control the space, and it’s hard to get in touch with them.”
But there are times when—as hard as it may be to believe—the lifeguards have to make the first move. “When they’re really cute and not coming over,” says Jack, “we’ll have to go up and make a corny introduction. We’ll say, ‘It’s very hot today. We just want to make sure you’re wearing sunscreen.’ ”
Why are lifeguards so sexy, when their sexiness has become such an American cliché? On the one hand, they’re eternally young. Unlike Jones Beach guards, this crew is 18–26; each summer, residents of this town can count on a new crop of twentysomething eye candy for those lazy, hazy summer afternoons. As Melissa, 32, a curly-haired blonde who grew up summering in the town, points out, “When you’re younger, they’re hot, and once you get older than they are, they become dirty-hot.”
It makes it easier that they don’t have much competition for attention. On a beach where the Sanyo blimp is cause for chatter, the most exciting event of the day can be the morning rescue drills, in which two lifeguards swim out on a line to be rescued, while another ropes them in. “The ocean lifeguards all have really good torsos and that lifeguard posture,” says Brianna, a 22-year-old, mimicking the erect stance. “It’s the stereotype of the helpless girl in the water who wakes up to find a lifeguard giving her mouth-to-mouth, like Prince Charming.”
For the lifeguards, the job is win-win; staying fit keeps them looking hot, and by looking hot they get more attention. “When you lifeguard you get tan and your hair bleaches out,” says Bobby, who wrote his Harvard thesis on squash and masculinity. “So it attracts people who like to tan and lay out. It’s not just a correlation; it’s also causation. And we’re on display. The lifeguard is like a statue in a high chair, like a throne, and almost naked.”
But after-hours, lifeguards tend to turn from Adonises into regular adolescent guys. It’s hard to recognize them without their red trunks, and they seem younger and more naïve. On a Saturday night at the local yacht club, the brothers show up in geeky headgear—Jack wears a floppy white hat, Greg a Tupac-style bandanna tied at the side, and Bobby a terry sweat band. They drink pitchers as Greg flirts with a Swedish au pair, and then they walk to a bar in a nearby singles town to dance.
The crowd is older and oblivious, but the boys act as though they’re the star attraction. Tyson, an older guard with an eighties ’stache and CHiPs glasses, takes off his whistle, spins it on his fingers, and lassoes in an imaginary girl as Bobby does an awkward mambo. They wear the same cocky expressions they have on the beach, as though they’re perpetual VIPs.
“When we’re working,” says Jack, “there’s a real spontaneity in seeing something that needs to be done and doing it. That becomes a part of your personality when you’re out. You just approach people. You become can-do.”
Once they do score, can they deliver? Just how well do they … body-surf? “We have a good physique, and we have stamina,” Jack answers, bobbing his head to the music. “And we can strip off all our clothing very quickly.”