Chronicling a Tradition of Lifesaving

Don Lenzer captured a simulated rescue on Ocean Guard Certification Day, June 27, 2010. Mae Mougin

Every small town has its traditions, lore, and characters that it takes for granted. What becomes fascinating is what happens when those same memes are refracted through an outsider’s lens. The latest East Hampton tradition to achieve a new life through this type of treatment is the town’s junior lifeguard and ocean rescue programs, the subjects of a documentary in progress. The film promises, like so many documentaries, to bring fresh insight and perhaps even fame to an institution old-timers here simply take for granted.
    As characters go, John Ryan Sr. could certainly qualify as larger than life, perfect as a movie subject, someone not going gently into the twilight of his life. Seen recently on East Hampton’s Main Beach with a plunger on his head at the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge, Mr. Ryan defines character, both in personality and the dedication he has given to training junior lifeguards in the town for almost four decades.
    Mae Mougin and Laurie Wiltshire, the executive producers of the documentary on the trainers and trainees, tentatively titled “Big Bad John’s Lifeguards for Life,” recognized this quality and knew they wanted to capture the program while Mr. Ryan was still actively participating in it.
    Getting him to agree was the easy part. “I asked John if he would be willing to be filmed and he said, ‘Yes, our program starts tomorrow,’ ” Ms. Mougin recalled. “We started filming the kids the next day in the pool at the Y.” Since that day, they’ve collected hundreds of hours of footage, having followed them for a year.
    On a recent weekday, Ms. Mougin was at work at LTV Studios logging footage of the Polar Bear Plunge, which John Ryan Jr. oversees as the chief of the town’s lifeguard corps and in which the Ryan family and the East Hampton Town Volunteer Ocean Rescue Squad is always well represented. The event raised money for the town’s food pantries.
    The footage was added to hours and hours of training footage and the National Lifeguard Championships, in which the East Hampton junior lifeguard team took titles in the beach flag and the distance swim competitions. Catherine Tambini is the director and producer of the film. She was a winner at Sundance for the documentary “Farmingville” and was a co-producer of “Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse,” which was nominated for an Academy Award. Their director of photography, Wolfgang Held, and sound recordist, Peter Miller, also have award-winning credits to their names.
What they do not have are abundant funds. Ms. Mougin said that friends and community members have been generous with donations and LTV has been generous with equipment and time and has even provided them with a platform to raise money through its own nonprofit status. But, to realize their vision, they continue to need a sizable infusion of cash, ideally well into the six figures as “finishing funds.”
Seth Redlus at LTV said his role is to “hold the hands of local documentary filmmakers working on various sorts of projects.” Given the community-based nature of the subject matter, he said it was easy to lend the filmmakers a hand with a workplace, advice, and a way to raise money.
With so many hours of footage and big plans for next season and the next national competition, the film is very much in its early stages, but the outlines of a story are beginning to take shape. “It’s a real journey,” said Ms. Mougin. “It’s the story of a father passing his legacy onto his son, something he started that is so unique to a waterfront community.”
    Ms. Mougin sees the film as a community effort about a community effort. “These really are lifeguards for life. Even when they’re no longer certified they will always know what to do.” It’s the story of several aspirants as well, including a 21-year-old champion swimmer from Belarus named Andrei; Ace, an 11-year-old challenged by the swim test; Amanda, an expert paddleboard racer at the age of 13, and Paloma and Jeremy, both 16 and struggling to achieve their certifications. Also central to the stories are John Ryan Jr., John McGeehan, and Robbie Lambert. Mr. McGeehan is the town’s assistant chief lifeguard and Mr. Lambert is a former assistant chief. The Ryans’ family life will also be explored.
    “The goal is to not have it be a talking heads documentary,” Ms. Mougin said. A 90-second promotional DVD for the film has been professionally produced and edited. It hints at an active and dramatic narrative. “They’re training in freezing cold water. This is not about ‘Baywatch,’ it’s about them devoting their lives to saving other people.”
    The voice-overs on the video are like homilies. “This is not a place to be a hero, yet,” a voice intones as the new trainees in wetsuits hit the beach. John Ryan Sr.’s voice is heard saying: “The easiest part of the rescue is getting to the victim, the easiest part. . . . The hardest part is keeping upward. [The victim] is going to sink you to save himself.”