Randy DeGregori was born to be in the water. For that, there was no place quite like Malibu, where he spent his career as a chief lifeguard, rescue boat lieutenant, lifeguard and beach lieutenant. Born in Los Angeles, he first came to Malibu in 1964 and has since worked as a lifeguard at Zuma Beach and many other Malibu beaches. Other work included time on rescue boats off of Catalina Island, Santa Monica, Marina Del Rey and the Malibu coastline.
DeGregori, 69, retired in 2001 and married his wife, Winnie, in 2008. He’s dedicated much of his retirement to building a home in Decker Canyon and also continues traveling on worldwide surfing trips.
The Malibu Times got a chance to sit down with the man who was preparing to go on an annual surfing trip to Mexico with four other Malibu residents and travelers from all over the country.
How did your journey toward becoming a lifeguard chief begin?
I was always fond of the ocean from an early age and wanted to swim. My mother encouraged me to swim. I was eight years old when I went to Camp Fox, a summer resident camp for boys and girls in Catalina Island and was exposed to scuba diving and skin diving. I was working for a railroad company right out of high school. My dad worked in the railroad industry and wanted me to follow in his footsteps. Then I started working as a lifeguard part-time while going to school. I loved it because you had the opportunity to be in the ocean and on boats.
Can you describe the first time you saved a life?
There was one incident that refocused my energy. It was a summer in Zuma around 1966-67. Back then you didn’t have public warnings like you do now. You wouldn’t have the news warning you about high surf. There weren’t as many people back then, either. I remember I saw somebody who was far out, so I went out to get them. There was a rip tide and they were too far out. As I was going in, I saw two children approximately 20 years old struggling. I realized that the person on the outside was more capable of taking care of himself than the two children. I came back and grabbed both of them. I had to pull them down under the water in order for me to get some air. And then I pulled them up. I realized how tenuous a situation could be. You think you’ve got everything under control, but you’re dealing with Mother Nature. Things are beyond your control. Both children were OK.
What was the scariest incident for you?
There are so many of them. You don’t think about it that way. People are always asking me how I do it. You’re focused on your job and what you’re supposed to be doing. When you’re 18-19 years old you haven’t seen a lot of deaths. The first time I saw death was when I was about 24 years old and saw a young man step between two cars on PCH by Corral Beach. He was struck right behind the lifeguard station.
If you had one piece of advice for Malibu surfers, what would it be?
Learn from the people who have been here a while about the habits of the ocean and that it changes at different times of the year. If you’re going to be in the ocean, study it. One of the biggest dangers is the Santa Ana winds. History keeps repeating itself with that. There’s been a history of fatalities in Malibu with surfers and kayakers. It’s one of the most dangerous conditions for us.
What are some of your hobbies?
I’m always fixing something in my house. I’ve gone on many surfing trips, including two to Indonesia, one to Samoa, a dozen in Fiji, six to seven to Mexico and camping in Baja.
What is your favorite thing about Malibu?
It still has a measure of small-town flavor. You get to know people. There are a lot of good people here. When I was working on a rescue boat, there was nothing like Malibu when I was looking from that view. Malibu, off of Zuma Beach had the most surf rescues of all, the rescue boats I’ve worked on.
If you could change one thing about Malibu what would it be?
It would be wonderful to turn back the clock, but I don’t know how to do that. It was a much simpler time, smaller community. Most people here knew each other or of each other. I could do without my flat screen.
How was it having your portrait painted by Johanna Spinks?
It was the most interesting experience. She’s a very gracious lady. It was a pleasure meeting her. She is a very interesting person. It was my first time having my portrait painted.
Johanna Spinks also teaches classes in portrait painting, and may be reached at Johanna@johannaspinks.com or 310.384.7029.