An interview with University of Wisconsin Lifesaving Station staff
Article first published in the 2023 Greater Madison Lake Guide, a Clean Lakes Alliance publication
Situated on the southern shore of Lake Mendota is a very unassuming building. You may not recognize the building, but you’ve probably seen one of the boats housed here out on the lake. It’s the University of Wisconsin Lifesaving Station and its job is to help keep everyone safe on Greater Madison’s largest lake.
So who are the people who work in the building, drive the boats, and keep an eye on more than 15 square miles of water? Clean Lakes Alliance’s Adam Sodersten visited the building and took a ride on one of the rescue boats to get a better understanding of why this operation is one of the most unique in the country.
Our visit began with a conversation with Sean Geib, the UW Lifesaving Station Supervisor.
Adam Sodersten: How long have you been doing this?
Sean Geib: I hate to admit it, but this is my 26th season.
AS: Did you start when you were in college?
SG: I graduated college from here [UW-Madison]. At the time, I was an instructor at Hoofers and I was working at the Center for Limnology, and there was a classmate who was a lifeguard – this program [UW Lifesaving Station] used to be in charge of the student lifeguards at the Wisconsin Union. And he said, “Hey, you should go down to the Lifesaving Station and apply. It sounds like this game is right up your alley!” So, I came on down one day and I’ve been here for 26 years!
AS: How long has the Lifesaving Station been around?
SG: We were originally chartered in 1909, when Charles Van Hise was the University President. And if you think back in 1909 there are no cell phones. In fact, there are probably hardly any phones. There’s no sheriff, there’s no fire department, there’s no Coast Guard on the lake, there’s nothing. Students were going on the lake and drowning, so Van Hise chartered us as the way to prevent students from drowning. And we’ve been here ever since.
AS: Have you always been at this site?
SG: When our program was originally created in 1909, we were behind the Red Gym. That building deteriorated and they moved us down here in the fall of 1967. This used to be where the governor’s mansion’s old boathouse was located. When that building was on its way to be demolished, the University was looking for shoreline space to move the lifesaving station to, and the state, which owned this property, said, “Hey, we have this property, would you like it?” The University took it, tore down the boathouse, and built this station more than 50 years ago.
AS: Is it kind of unique to have a university lifesaving station?
SG: Very unique!
AS: There aren’t too many other universities around the country that have lake access like this?
SG: No. And it’s taken me many years to wrap my head around it in that you have a fairly large urban environment on an inland lake that is large enough to get what would be considered small craft advisory conditions. So, if you’re on Lake Michigan or on the coast, and the weather’s bad, the Coast Guard sends out an alert like, “Hey, small craft advisory, don’t go out.” Well, because there’s no Coast Guard jurisdiction on this lake, due to no commercial traffic, this lake doesn’t get those small craft advisories. So, you have a large lake, no Coast Guard jurisdiction, and an urban environment right in downtown Madison, plus the University – 40,000 plus undergrads, second largest inland sailing program in the nation; and it’s a combination of all these factors that make it why we’re here.
AS: What is a typical year for you?
SG: We’ll do about 600 to 800 runs a year, with about 85-90% of them being UW students. The vast majority of what we do is not life threatening – the water is warm, the weather is good, people wear life jackets. But there are always a handful every year where people are terrified and you’re able to help them or save them.
AS: Are there specific days when you come in and you know it’s going to be a busy day?
SG: Nothing is guaranteed, but there are certain factors. Often, when the day starts off fairly calm or with light winds, and then the winds pick up during the day, and people don’t recognize they’ve picked up.
AS: Is that when you hear the steam whistle if you’re on the lake?
SG: The automatic timer on the steam whistle goes off an hour before we close – around sunset. We also can manually deploy it here at the tower. We will go “red flag” and blow the whistle three times alerting people to get off the lake. Then our person in the tower can triage and see which boat is farthest out and figure out if everybody has enough time to get back on shore before it gets really bad.
Next, we took a tour of the UW Lifesaving Station tower while UW student Cody Nechvatal sat watch.
SG: So, this is the tower. When we’re open, we always have one person in the watch tower. Ninety percent of our calls come from this tower person seeing somebody they need us to check on with our lifesaving boat. We have different types of binoculars and spotting scopes of different magnification. There are cameras on areas over by the University. We have today’s weather here. There is a VHF radio for ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore communication. And we have a police band radio to communicate with our boat or if SCUBA 1 or the Dane County Sheriff gets on the water.
AS: Where do most of the employees come from? Do students make up the lion’s share of the staff?
SG: Let’s see, we have a couple of teachers – this is a great teacher job. Couple of firefighters. We have three students, a couple of recent grads. I’d say 40% of our employees come from some sort of lifeguarding realm. Everyone who works here loves the water. That’s probably the one thread that unites us all.
After some time spent in the tower with Nechvatal and a tour of the facility, we headed out on to one of the Lifesaving Station’s three boats with Geib, boat operator Paul Wittkamp, and crew member Luke Stover.
SG: This boat you can see has a lot of electronics. We have different types of sonar underneath providing a full digital chart of the lake. We have a FLIR [Forward Looking InfraRed] camera so if there is a person in the water, the temperature difference will be really noticeable compared to the water.
AS: When you send out the boat, how many people are usually on it?
SG: We typically have one operator and two crew.
AS: Not that I need to see it, but how fast will the boat go?
Paul Wittkamp: Oh, we’ll show ya!
Before we brought it up to speed, we stopped to chat with Dane County Sheriff Deputy Sgt. Kyle McNally. The UW Lifesaving Station and Dane County Sheriff’s Department partner often on lake rescues.
PW: Everybody ready? Comin’ up!
AS: 35 miles per hour? Pretty fast!
SG: If you want to do some sharper turns, go ahead.
PW: Hard turn port!
SG: Why don’t we stop and go through what we do for a warm-up.
PW: Ok, coming down!
SG: If we were coming out on a warm-up run, we would get all the current conditions so we could let Hoofer sailors know. That would include getting wind direction and speed as well as a Secchi disk [water clarity depth].
AS: Why is it great to have these rescue boats on this lake?
SG: There’s a level of security that people have going out. They think, “Hey, if I get into trouble, Harvey [the Lifesaving Station’s boat nickname] will rescue me.” You don’t have that safety blanket if you go to other bodies of water. So that is nice for everybody here learning to sail.
AS: Are there ever times when even the Lifesaving Station doesn’t go out? Do you think, “We’re going to get out there, get next to a boat, but it’s not going to be safe for them or us.”
SG: You always do the risk/reward analysis. There are times we can’t right the sailboat. Just because we’re here doesn’t mean everything can be rescued. Most of the time we can help, but there are times we just can’t. And that’s hard for the staff too – they think we can get everything. If you’ve been here long enough, you start to see there are always exceptions to everything.
After a run around the southern part of the lake, we headed back into the Lifesaving Station.
AS: Kind of a tight squeeze docking it back here between the pier and the breakwater.
PW: We’ll come up to the end of the pier here and spin 180 degrees.
AS: Oh, right, we were bow out when we left.
SG: What people don’t realize is we come within feet if not inches of people and equipment in the water. So being able to handle, operate, and maneuver these boats is really a core component of this job. It takes about three years for a person to go from first driving this boat to being an operator. You’re constantly learning.