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Lifeguards conquer the dark

More than 70 join annual Night Crawler

Posted: July 20, 2008 12:31 a.m.
Updated: September 20, 2008 5:02 a.m.

A junior lifeguard waves the participants in the 13th annual Night Crawler race toward the shore at Castaic Lake on Thursday night. More than 70 lifeguards took part in the race.

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Trial by fire became trial by water Thursday night when more than 70 young lifeguards jumped into the darkened waters of Castaic Lake and began swimming a mile to shore.

What began as a lark more than a dozen years ago when two lifeguards swam from a small island in the center of the lake, has become a rite a passage for many local young lifeguards — twice as many this year as last year.

The 13th annual Night Crawler Swim has also become a strange migration of sorts for lifeguards who now come back year after year to join rookie junior lifeguards swimming 1,650 yards to shore in the dark.
On Thursday, scores of lifegurads and their families gathered under the canopy of the Castaic Lake Parks and Recreation Centre at the East Ramp.

“We value our lifeguards,” said Hayden Sohm, Deputy Director of Regional Facilities Agency for the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation told the group to kick off the event.

The Night Crawler swimmers met at dusk, as the sun set over the mountains to the west, and as buffet food heated up on a long table. Young and old, those saddled with the  responsibility of saving people’s lives smiled and laughed as they reminisced about past Night Crawlers.

Irma Gorrocino, 18, is a lifeguard in East Los Angeles. It was her first Night Crawler.

“I guard lives in East L.A. at the Atlantic Swimming Pool,” she said, preparing to swim. “I heard about this through our supervisor. He said it was crazy but I’ve done crazier,” she said, referring to a three-mile swim off the coast of La Jolla.

For Valentina Aberti, 22, of Castaic, this year’s Night Crawler Swim was a return visit.|

Why did she return a year later to swim almost a mile in the dark?

“It’s a good time and we party,” she said.

As the bright orange-tinted full moon rose steadily over the mountains on the south side of the lake, swimmers gathered on the shore, each of them sporting fluorescent green glow sticks.

For many of the onlookers, well-wishers and volunteers agreeing to paddle out to the middle of the lake in canoes, support kayaks and on paddle boards, the Night Crawler Swim was a rare opportunity and luxury, allowing them to experience the peaceful beauty of the lake at night.

Normal day-to-day operations at the lake require that everyone leave the park at dusk.

Seeing the moonlight shimmer on a windless quiet night was a gift, many said.

“I was told only that ‘the moonlight will guide you’,” said 15-year-old Kevin Gabellieri, who volunteered to paddle next to competing swimmers.

One lifeguard stood out among the others clambering to board one of three boats that would escort them to an island in the middle of the lake, 6-foot-4 Dustin Miller, age 22.

“The water is 80 degrees, so it’s not that cold and the water is clean,” he said, having finished fourth in last year’s relaxed competition.

The down side? “It’s a long distance,” he said. “It’s just short of a mile and it’s long because there’s no wall.”

For the novice Night Crawlers, swimming in the dark proved particularly ominous despite the fact that so many others were swimming at the same time.

Seen from the shore with binoculars, the Night Crawlers looked like bobbing dots of florescent green, slowly moving through the darkened waters, like a school of specially-marked fish.

“It was a little scary,” said Chrysta McMahon, 18, who finished first among the women competing, tying with her friend and fellow Night Crawler Joelle Johnson, 22.

Both women finished the course in a time of 18 minutes and 19 seconds.

“The water was a little warmer than last year,” said Johnson, still dripping from the swim.  “I went a little off course, and then I saw the lights and I did a mad sprint for the end.

“For me, it’s more fun because of the social aspect — I like the social aspect of it.”

Most swimmers made it to shore in 18 and 22 minutes.

Grant Richman, 15, was the first overall to reach the shore in a time of 15 minutes and 32 seconds.

All the Night Crawlers, despite hanging out at the watery finish line, soaking wet and in the glare of headlights from emergency vehicles, laughed under the food tent later, towels on shoulders, watching slides of each other on an outdoor video screen.

Lifeguards are responsible for patrolling the water in boats, administering first aid, training junior lifeguards and, of course, saving lives.

Night Crawler lifeguards are responsible for swimming in the dark with their friends and having fun.

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