NEWPORT BEACH — Every summer, school-aged children from neighborhoods like Dover Shores and Corona del Mar board the Balboa Island Ferry and travel together to the beach. They wear massive backpacks and matching red and blue clothes — all from a marquee surfwear brand, to be sure.
Parents have to buy the expensive clothes and pay much more if they want their kids to join this group. These youngsters don't belong to a private swimming club or yacht club, but the city-run Junior Lifeguards program.
Newport Beach has the most expensive junior lifeguard program among its neighbors and other prominent Southern California beach cities. It can cost more than twice as much as a comparable program run by Huntington Beach, and a look at the differences provides a glimpse into Newport's culture: more elaborate clothes, higher salaries for managers and a willingness to spare no expense.
"I'm assuming we're getting what we pay for," said Janine McDonald, a fortysomething chief executive of a management consultancy who brought her daughter for the first time to Jr. Guards last week. "The program has a brand and its own reputation … I think I'm paying for top-quality staff."
Indeed, Newport employs year-round guard supervisors with pensions and high salaries to administer the program, while Huntington Beach uses seasonal program coordinators. That, combined with a lower student-to-instructor ratio in Newport, means the city spends about 50% more per student on its instructors than Huntington.
Also, the Newport uniform package includes a choice of three hats, a towel and a swim cap, while Huntington students are limited to visors, and their towels are optional. Huntington Beach-based Quiksilver even makes custom Hawaiian shirts for Newport's hot dog dinner — so the instructors can appear in style.
"We are confident that Quiksilver will provide [uniforms] that will satisfy our participants and their discerning parents," lifeguard administrators wrote in a staff report recommending that the City Council approve the contract with the apparel maker.
Jennifer Schultz, spokeswoman for the Newport Beach Fire Department, said the uniforms exemplify the Newport program: They are "all-inclusive" and "extraordinary." The Fire Department oversees the lifeguards.
"We just made it an exceptional program, and we determine the cost from there," Schultz said.
Newport residents pay $675, while Huntington residents pay $550 for a program that has about 50 more hours per summer. When broken down by hour, it's about 85% more expensive in Newport.
Non-residents pay even more. Newport's out-of-town cost difference is higher than nearby cities, bringing the fee to $785. That's more than double the per-hour price than in Huntington.
Price notwithstanding, the programs have many similarities.
Both cities attend regional competitions and take field trips to places such as Santa Catalina Island and water parks. They each have an annual hot dog roast and hold a marquee event: the Pier Swim in Huntington and the Monster Mile in Newport. The program fees cover these costs.
The two day camps run about seven or eight weeks, but Huntington's is five days per week to Newport's four. In total, Newport spends about $1 million each year on its 1,250 students, and Huntington spends about $515,000 on its 1,000 or so students.
Both cities recover almost all of their operating and personnel costs from participants.
Junior Lifeguard programs generally train children ages 9 to 17 on how to be safe at the beach and in the ocean. They learn how to escape rip currents, how to swim in waves, perform first aid and other skills.
"No matter what the cost is, it's priceless for those kids to be safe for the rest of their lives at the beach," said Reenie Boyer, the junior lifeguard chairwoman for the U.S. Lifesaving Assn.
Boyer helped start the Newport program in 1984, and still has a swimming buoy named after her there. She was also heavily involved in the Huntington Beach program.
"Whatever they charge," Boyer said, "doesn't make one better than the other … every community has a unique atmosphere and feeling."
Some of the equipment and capital costs in Huntington are covered by parent and community support groups, such as the Friends of the Junior Guards, while Newport does no such fundraising. The Huntington groups raised about $250,000 to outfit the program's new headquarters with furniture, and about $100,000 for a storage facility that opened this year.
Newport operates out of a trailer, and the program's annual capital and equipment costs are about $25,000.
To trim on personnel costs, the Newport Beach Fire Department recently decided to reshuffle the junior lifeguard management. Instead of a battalion chief and a captain running the show, the guards will have a lifeguard officer, a captain and a community preparedness coordinator. Officials expect to save about $50,000 per year from the changes.
Periodically, Newport assesses its program's costs. Schultz, the spokeswoman, said they may analyze them this fall.
"It's a lot of money, but it's an invaluable experience," said Rendell Swart, 40, a software salesman whose 9-year-old daughter, Isabella, is a first-year Newport junior lifeguard.
Swart didn't consider other programs, he said, because his family and his daughter's friends live in the Newport-Mesa area. It didn't shock him when he learned about the program's comparatively high cost.
"That doesn't surprise me," he said. "It's Newport."