Lakefront Lifeguarding Skills Challenge

by Greg Friese, Thomas Amodio, and Andy Douglass

The lakefront lifeguarding skills challenge is a safe, fun, and enriching way to assess staff swimming abilities, practice lifeguarding skills, and build awareness about the difficulty of lakefront lifeguarding. It is another training opportunity for staff to work together, practice skills, and think of themselves as risk managers or overseers of camper safety.

Camp staff and waterfront lifeguards typically receive lifeguarding certification in the calm, warm waters of a swimming pool. Water depth is marked and known, water temperature is the same at all depths, the swimming area is well lit, and the swimming area is clearly defined. However, in the lakefront swim area the bottom depth often varies greatly, visibility is less than two to four feet, and there are great seasonal and water depth temperature variations.

Camp lifeguards need to transfer their pool lifeguard skills to the lakefront swim area. The lakefront lifeguard skills challenge is a process to assess staff swimming ability and to transfer pool lifeguarding skills to a lakefront situation.

Getting Started

The skills challenge has three stations. The stations were developed to be relevant to the lifeguarding challenges faced at a camp where all campers participate in canoe, backpack, or sea kayak trips. Develop skills stations based on your camp’s programming.

Staff are assigned to groups of two to three and rotate through the skills stations. Participant safety is very important. Lifeguards should be stationed within reaching distance — pole or rescue tube — of participants at all times. Participant teams of two or three should be working in “buddy” groups. During the briefing make sure to clearly outline the stations, safety procedures, and give options for participation. Create an environment where staff feel supported and part of a community. Acknowledge that many participants are not comfortable swimming in cloudy lakes, touching the bottom, or are not ready for the cold water temperatures during staff training.

Brief staff on the skills challenge and general lakefront lifeguarding policies — such as size of swim area, lifeguard is aware and alert, and hazard evaluation (weather, bottom conditions). (See sample trail swimming guidelines.)

Station 1: Retrieve Object from Lake Bottom

Purpose: To be able to sight and retrieve a sunken object. This station builds sighting skill and awareness of bottom conditions, water clarity, and temperature variation.

Directions: A capped, orange plastic jug (for visibility) filled with sand or rocks is thrown into seven to nine feet of water fifteen to twenty yards from shore. The rescuer along with two observers sights the location of the sunken plastic jug by lining up the jug with two stationary points beyond it, such as pier sections, swim raft, moored boat, or shoreline feature.

The observers stand fifteen to twenty feet on each side of the rescuer. They guide the rescuer to the object’s location, where their sight lines intersect. The rescuer performs repeated surface dives until the object is retrieved. The station is completed when the jug is returned to the thrower and the rescuer has returned safely to shore.

Safety: A lifeguard is positioned within reaching distance of the rescuer. Sighters also keep an eye on the rescuer and offer verbal guidance and encouragement until the skill is completed.

Station 2: Tired Swimmer Assist

Purpose: To enter the water and swim to a tired swimmer, while maintaining voice and visual contact with the swimmer, and tow them to shore. The station builds awareness about a reasonable distance for a swimmer to be from the lifeguard in a trail swimming situation and how quickly lifeguards and swimmers can become fatigued in cold lake water.

Directions: The rescuer swims out to a tired swimmer fifty feet away, places a PFD on them, and tows them back to shore.

Safety: Perform this skill next to pier so a lifeguard can walk alongside the rescuer. “Victims” are also guarded while waiting for their rescuer.

Station 3: Canoe Re-entry from Water

Purpose: To help a swimmer re-enter a canoe from the water. It is not always feasible for a swimmer to re-enter their swamped canoe and maneuver it to shore. The quickest action may be to lift the swimmer into another canoe. The station builds awareness about the difficulty of canoe entry from water.

Directions: A swimmer swims ten to fifteen yards out to a canoe that has two rescuers. The two rescuers help the swimmer into their boat by lifting, encouraging, balancing, and preventing their boat from swamping. The rotation continues by having one rescuer swim back to shore and a new swimmer comes out to the canoe.

Safety: Canoe entry from the water can cause uncomfortable skin pinches, rubs, and bruises. Encourage rescuers to grab clothing or PFDs for lifting, rather than limbs or digits. For their own safety, the two rescuers should lift together, and bring the swimmer into the canoe in stages — arms over gunwale, torso over gunwale, one leg over, etc. A lifeguard should be nearby in a second boat.

Upon successful completion of the lifeguard skills challenge staff members’ swimming abilities has been assessed, important trail and lakefront swim area lifeguarding skills have been practiced, and staff can more safely set up and guard swim areas.


Originally published in the 2001 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.