NORTH WILDWOOD, N.J. — Getting lost on the beach was once a rite of passage for anyone visiting the Jersey Shore.
Generations of children have sprinted into the surf, failing to look back and orient themselves, only to be slowly pushed up and down the coast by crashing waves. When they came out and couldn’t find their family, they’d have to tug on a lifeguard’s toe for help as they rubbed sandy tears into their eyes.
That’s why Kevin O’Brien, from the far Northeast, tells everyone to look for the pink unicorn flag he stakes into the sand in North Wildwood. It flies just below a Marine Corps flag and the U.S. flag.
“I mean, you can’t miss it, right?” O’Brien, 64, said on the beach there recently. (O’Brien said he and family members purchased several properties together and would soon be designing a custom flag.)
But there were at least two pink unicorn flags on the beach that day, along with hundreds of others. The bulk of the flags were for Philadelphia sports teams. People flew flags for Rutgers University, Temple, and Penn State, along with one for Arizona State. A handful of flags were flying for Father Judge, a Catholic high school in the Northeast. A man named Jeff Judge flew one of the Father Judge flags. “He still sings the fight song,” a woman beside him said.
Some flew flags to tout their profession, hence the “thin blue” and “thin red” flags for police officers and firefighters. Billy Gorey, 46, of Port Richmond, staked some advertising for his vintage clothing business, Golden Bear, beside his beach chair.
“I do it for my son, really, so he can have a landmark in the ocean,” he said.
Meanwhile, on the same day, at the same time, no flags were flying on the Stone Harbor beach just across Hereford Inlet. The tradition is a relatively new one and, it seems, far more prominent in some Shore towns, such as the Wildwoods, than others.
“I’m not sure why that is,” said North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello. “Maybe we just like to have more fun here.”
Rosenello said someone in his beach crew flies a flag for the band Phish.
Sea Isle City Beach Patrol Chief Renny Steele started lifeguarding in 1968, long before beach-spreading, with its ubiquitous tents, gazebos, and umbrellas, took hold at the Jersey Shore. He said flags are common in Sea Isle City, most of them, like those in the Wildwoods, flying for sports teams and colleges.
“In 1968, we didn’t have one single flag,” Steele said. “It’s been the last 10 years.”
Steele said the flags are a welcomed relief for his guards, who spend a fair amount of time helping children find their families on the beach.
“Each summer, we deal with anywhere from 175 to 200 lost children,” he said.
Some people also try to push messages about politics, social commentary, and hate. Over Fourth of July weekend, in Ventnor, one group of beach-goers flew a white supremacist Proud Boys flag along with another that said “Socialism Sucks. Biden Blows.”
Timothy Brunemeyer, owner of East Coast Flag & Flagpole in Beachwood, Ocean County, said fans of former President Donald Trump’s changed flag sales.
“We get customers in here every day asking for ‘Trump 2024′ flags,” he said.
Brunemeyer said flag sales are steady at the Shore, where people also like to hang them from homes.
“It’s the whole Northeast, really,” he said. “Flags sell well here.”
Pro-Trump flags would have been a common sight on Wildwood beaches in recent years. Last year, just months before Trump’s defeat, officials in Cape May fielded complaints about a pro-Trump flag there, but the city declined to wade into any type of political-speech ban on the beach.
Rosenello said he’s fielded a few complaints about political flags and suggestions that the municipality ban flags altogether, but that didn’t fly.
When The Inquirer visited the Wildwoods recently, there were no Trump flags on a six-block stretch.
“There’s no Biden flags, either,” said Ed Panco, 69.
A single, custom-made flag fluttered above him —”Pancadise” — a reference to the backyard paradise Panco built for his kids back in Ridley.
“I just moved Pancadise to the beach,” he said.
With so many flags on the beach, it’s best to stand out, either with a custom flag such as Panco’s or the bold black and white lettering —”Don’t give up the ship” — waving from Butch Brothman’s pole.
“A lot of people think the p is a t,” said Brothman, a York resident who spent four years in the Navy. “One guy walked a quarter-mile to make sure it didn’t say what he thought it said.”