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‘I have never seen beauty like that.' Clearwater’s top lifeguard recalls quiet of closed beach

Community Conversation: Patrick Brafford gave up policing for a career atop a lifeguard tower.

Patrick Brafford, 41, is the lifeguard manager for Clearwater Beach. He has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and served as a police officer for a while, but he walked away from that to take up life-guarding full-time.

“I respect the blue, but I love wearing the red,’’ he said. He talked to the Tampa Bay Times last week about his job, what it was like during the six-week beach shutdown aimed at helping stop spread of the coronavirus and the beach reopening on May 4.

How was the beach during the first weekend of reopening?

To say the least, we had a real good crowd out here … (Clearwater police) put some units out here, and as they noticed the areas reaching that capacity, they’d have folks try to spread out a little more to fill in the areas that were empty, where you can see sand.

For the most part, folks respected and followed the social distancing.

You worked throughout the beach shutdown. What was that like?

It was surreal.

I have never seen beauty like that. I’ve never seen the Gulf clear up and calm down. I’ve never seen the sand so gorgeous. I’ve never seen so much marine life.

I think the only life suffering out here on the beach were the seagulls, because they’re looking around like, ‘Where’s all the people? Where’s all the food, man?’ But it was dolphins, sea turtles ... you see big fish moving around. It was gorgeous.

Patrick Brafford, 41, on Clearwater Beach near Pier 60 on May 8. Brafford is the beach lifeguard manager and has been a lifeguard since 2001. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

I heard that during the shutdown, you and another lifeguard rescued people from a boat sinking in choppy seas at Clearwater Pass. What happened?

By the time we got out, the boat had submerged so much that the bow was a little bit out of the water. Three people could sit on it back-to-back and stay on however they could.

Unfortunately, there was a canine on board. We took flotation and gave all three guys flotation. We ended up having to give our vests to the guys … because we could tell they were limited to non-swimmers and pretty distraught at that point.

Did you ever find the dog?

(Lifeguard Scott Mattis) hopped off and tried to attempt a couple of surface dives. If you know anything about Clearwater Pass … (it) is one of the strongest currents, if not the strongest current out here. Every time he would try to release his grasp on the boat and then go under, he would get pulled a bit.

He made a couple of attempts, and it wasn’t going to happen ... It’s just real sad.

While successful rescues have to be gratifying, how do you handle it when someone doesn’t make it?

Everybody who’s been in it for a while, hopefully you’ve learned how to cope with things like that.

And I think the hardest thing for me is, how is my staff coping with it? How is the guy that we just hired or the girl that we just hired two weeks ago, how are they going to cope with it? How is a 17- or 18-year-old or maybe somebody a little older that hasn’t worked that long, how are they coping with it?

We’re all wired differently.

How do you and your team keep in shape?

The United States Lifesaving Association … sets open water standards for beach lifeguards.

You have to swim (550 yards) in open water in less than 10 minutes. Everybody kind of adds to that.

We take that swim, it’s got to be less than 10 minutes, and then immediately right after we run one mile. And the swim and the run together … have to be less than 18 minutes. We have testing twice a year to make sure we’re meeting the standards, but what we do to train, we just break it up throughout the week.

So we’ll do a variation of distance swimming or short swimming, sprint swimming, things like that, running and swimming together … We’ll run down to the Palm Pavilion, come back and swim out around the pier.

What drew you to this job?

I always wanted to be lifeguard. When I grew up, I always idolized those guards.

The towers seemed so much bigger then. They were the guys sitting up there with those round, soft white hats on, a stripe of zinc on their nose and whistles … I idolized that.

I wanted to see what this is all about. I never looked back.

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