The naked truth about lifeguarding Toronto’s nude beach

Bare bums speckled with wet sand, dangling appendages and collections of exposed skin that mingle together like Neapolitan ice cream: this is the view from Declan Sweeney’s “office.” He’s a lifeguard at Hanlan’s Point, a stretch of beach on Toronto Island that includes the city’s only “clothing optional” public bathing area.

As a 19-year-old Ryerson engineering student, it’s quite the summer job.

“My very first day at Hanlan’s I was a little uncomfortable. I’d never seen a nude beach in my life, ”said Sweeney, who stood watch Thursday afternoon, fully clothed and ready to spring into action should any sunbathers get in trouble.

“But as the summer goes on, you gain comfort with it. It’s really just people relaxing and trying to enjoy their day. ”

Alongside Sweeney are Jacki Kicksee and Joe Wevers, each clad in red windbreakers to identify them as lifeguards. Like Sweeney, they don’t mind watching over the island beach partitioned by a string of thin stakes in the sand that serves as a firm borderline between the realm of the possibly naked and the definitely clothed.

The nexus of their workspace is a steel tower that’s about three meters high. It serves as a perch from which the guards scan their territory, holler through their megaphone and scamper out into the waves on their surf board or wooden paddle boat, something they do every time a beachgoer ventures into the lake.

The three lifeguards said working the nude beach isn’t all that different from watching over any other shore. It’s still a serious gig, where vigilance is job number one.

But weird stuff can happen.

For starters, “you get the regulars,” said Wevers. A recurring cast of characters that frequent the nude beach, and often approach their lifeguard tower to chat. Essentially, he said, it’s “just a bunch of older guys who like to get nude,” glancing over at the gray-haired sunbathers lying on towels in the nearby sand.

One of them approached the lifeguards moments later, a middle-aged man wearing nothing but a fanny pack and black Indiana Jones-style hat. He stood with a hand on his hip as he asked Wevers about the lifeguard’s surf board, which he uses to get out in the water when the waves get big.

Another memorable character is the Pizza Guy. They all laugh when his name comes up.

“He thought he was like a wizard or something,” said Sweeney, describing how Pizza Guy would ask them if they were hungry, then run into the lake, hold out his hands and holler at the heavens in a goofy attempt to conjure up some pizza.

“He’d look up at the sky and yell for pizza,” said Kicksee with a laugh.

Though the beach was sparsely populated Thursday as clouds rolled in from the northwest, Wevers said that on weekends there can be as many as 1,000 people at Hanlan’s Point, many of them stripped down on the clothing-optional side.

Kicksee added that many of the people are in their 20s. Families with kids also come to visit the beach.

“I think people are becoming more and more okay with it,” she said.

The university students have each spent several summers on the beach as seasonal workers with the Toronto Police lifeguarding service, which staffs municipal beaches. Each of them has had experiences dealing with emergency situations, such as when Kicksee had to help a man who’d injured his head on the bike path near the beach, and Wevers had to rescue someone who’d jumped off a boat into the water on a particularly frigid day.

In fact, aside from heat exhaustion, the biggest dangers on the beach are swimming when the wind whips up the waves or the water is cold, the lifeguards cautioned.

But for the most part, they enjoy coming out to the island every day for work. It’s lovely place to be, said Sweeney.

That’s the naked truth.

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