Josh Guerra is an Oahu lifeguard, a surfer, a gigging musician, and a 40-year-old man who knows firsthand the power of intention. He did not grow up on the beach. Raised in Colorado and Kansas, a graduate of Texas Christian University, it took a lot of mind power to find his way to the balmy waters of Hawaii. “It’s so unreal, he told me. “Honolulu’s turned into a cosmopolitan place since I moved here in 1999.” Josh has been lifeguarding for seventeen years. His stoke is contagious. We spoke on the phone, him in Waikiki, me in Malibu. By the end of the conversation I was ready to swan dive into the surf.
Tell me about your work.
I work on the East Side. We call it District 2 — we have four districts on the island. The East Side encompasses Hanauma Bay to Kailua. So Sandy Beach, Makapu’u, Waimānalo, Kailua. I’m a jet ski operator, so four days a week I’m working on the jet ski, been doing that for a year and a half. I have a pretty set schedule, four days a week I’m on the ski and then one day a week I work at Hanauma Bay sitting in a tower and making rescues.
You must have some interesting stories.
There’s so many, they kind of start to run together. We had a guy at Sandy Beach on Saturday who took a stinger — went over the falls and hurt his neck pretty bad. I was just backing up the guys on the tower, working the ski, I just went down and started filling out the paperwork and was talking to the guy’s kid, and it turns out they’re from Manchester, England. They’re super nice, so we start talking about music, we start talking about The Smiths, who are from Manchester, and Oasis, and all these bands. I love that about the job. Obviously it was kind of a bad situation for them but I ended up making friends and meeting these people. And the guy’s probably going to be okay, he had a pretty minor stinger. That’s just one of those instances where you’re like, This job’s so cool because you meet people from all over the world. You get a chance to be an ambassador to Hawaii for these people.
What’s the thing people know least about lifeguards in Hawaii?
I think there’s a stereotype that we spend a lot of time cruising and we’re relaxing and just hanging out on the beach. But what I have learned and what I don’t think most people know is that, yeah, 99% of the time it appears like you’re just sitting around, but what really the job is is being vigilant and developing a sense of what’s out of place in the scene in front of you. So really, a good lifeguard, what they’ve developed over years is being able to sit and almost be a mindful meditator. You’re sitting and you’re developing this awareness of, Okay, I have this scene in front of me and what’s out of place, what am I looking for? Although it would appear that you’re sitting and doing nothing, just that awareness, hyperawareness, of being a lifeguard is really demanding actually. I think that surprises people when you actually talk to them. You get people like, Oh, you’re just cruising, just checking out chicks. It’s like, No, if you’re really passionate about the job you’re actually putting a lot of energy into watching and observing and developing that skill, which takes time to develop. Some people have it and some people don’t, I mean some people just naturally are good it and some people aren’t. And some people are able to develop it over time.
What do you do on your days off?
I’m a musician as well, I have a couple of bands, I have a funk and soul and R&B cover band, like dance band. I’ve had that band for about five years, maybe longer than that. So I gig with them and then I also have another band of all original alternative rock with this girl, Erin Smith. Usually Fridays I’m rehearsing with them, with Erin Smith. I do yoga. My days off are pretty full. I try to do yoga so as I get older I’m limber. And then surf as much as I can, try to get up early and get in the water on my days off.
How did you find your way into lifeguarding?
I’m a firm believer in intention and goal setting — if you set your mind to something, you can achieve it. Our minds are very powerful. I was a senior in college at TCU. I knew that I loved Hawaii, I knew that I wanted to be a surfer, I knew that I wanted to do that lifestyle. I had no idea how I was going to do it. Really I had no other career aspirations. I was a geology and history major but I didn’t want to be an oil geologist in Texas and I didn’t really see myself being a history teacher. So I took an elective Red Cross lifeguarding class through the college, it was like an hour credit, just for fun, and did the whole lifeguarding thing. And on the last day of class, the instructor brought in a video that was made probably in the early ‘90s, maybe late ‘80s, about the Oahu lifeguards, the City and County of Honolulu lifeguards. It had Mark Cunningham in it, it had Rell Sunn, I believe it had some of the Keaulanas in it. And the minute he put that video on, I just knew. I knew that that’s what I was going to do with my life. And I had no idea how I was going to do it, because obviously growing up landlocked, my ocean experience was like zero. But I knew that that’s what I had to do with my life. I’ve had opportunities to go into the Honolulu Fire Department; I’ve turned them down. I don’t know how I became a jet ski operator, like that’s like the most coveted job in the department and I’m doing it. And I grew up in Colorado, and sometimes I go, How the hell did I get here? But again, I think about that moment of being like, That’s what I want to do! And that’s exactly how. Just that power of intention. I still wake up every day and have to kind of pinch myself, like, I can’t believe I’m doing this, you know.