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On guard

N.J. beach patrols have long been saving the day.

Ocean City lifeguard Dan Casey (standing) motions to swimmers at 12th Street beach. With him are fellow guards Erin Myers (left) and Matthew Charles. all are multiyear veterans of the beach patrol.
Ocean City lifeguard Dan Casey (standing) motions to swimmers at 12th Street beach. With him are fellow guards Erin Myers (left) and Matthew Charles. all are multiyear veterans of the beach patrol.Read moreED HILE / Staff Photographer

OCEAN CITY - They are the boys - and girls - of summer.

Bronzed by the sun and buff from the constant workout of swimming and rowing, lifeguards at beach patrols along the New Jersey coastline are ever ready to spring into action to save a desperate swimmer or locate a lost child.

Their service is one steeped in tradition - and perhaps a bit of mystique.

The concept of formally patrolling the beach to save lives may have, in fact, been spawned in America in New Jersey, with the founding in 1891 of the Atlantic City Beach Patrol. That squad is now the longest continually operating one in the United States. Ocean City Beach Patrol began about a dozen years later.

Cape May began unofficial rescue operations as early as 1845, with a primitive affair called a "rescue rope." Ropes hung outside beach bathing houses. If someone summoned help in the roiling surf, whoever heard the call would throw out a line so the victim could grab hold and be pulled to safety.

Before formal beach patrols, brave souls who ventured into the sea to save a wayward swimmer were rewarded with informal contributions from grateful victims or were thanked with proceeds from covered-dish dinners once common in beach towns at the end of the season.

Since then, beach rescue has become a more sophisticated endeavor, and patrols have evolved from small groups - mostly men, until recent years - to paid and well-trained squads.

And the mantle of beach patrol service is often passed generationally. Most Jersey Shore beach patrols can claim that two, three, or even four generations of the same family have served.

"It's a tradition that gets passed down in families, I think, because it is something that becomes so ingrained in the people who do it," said Atlantic City Beach Patrol Chief Steve Downey, 44. "It's just such a big part of who they are."

Atlantic City and Ocean City Beach Patrols operate with about 150 members each at the height of the season. On any given day, dozens of beaches are being covered by two-member teams and a backup crew that consists of lieutenants, captains, and emergency medical personnel.

The Long Beach Township Beach Patrol, which covers 12 miles of Long Beach Island, is one of the largest beach patrols in the country, with more than 200 members.

Women now make up about 10 percent of the squads; most members start out as teens still in high school. Often, members return for summers during college and grad school and, if their careers allow - such as those of teachers or college professors - continue guarding into their 40s and 50s. Starting salaries range from $8 to $12 an hour. Captains and lieutenants can make $8,000 to $30,000 per season, depending on locale.

Some days, beach towns need all hands on deck.

Patrols are reporting that this summer so far has been particularly busy for ocean rescues, thanks to shifting currents, sandbars, and consistent weather-driven rip currents.

Despite the conditions - lifeguards often work daylong shifts outside in weather that ranges from unrelenting sunshine to damp drizzle - most guards say they wouldn't trade their summer job for any other.

"It's the perfect summer job for a teacher," said Ocean City Beach Patrol Lt. Fran Reed, 42, a geometry teacher from Medford, who has been a lifeguard for 26 years. His son, Aiden, 16, just started lifeguarding this summer in Sea Isle. "You couldn't ask for a better summer job . . . to be on the beach, helping people. There really is nothing better."

When they are not eyeballing the strand from beach level, lifeguards sit upon their guard stands, which in some towns look like stilted Adirondack chairs and in others, like Ocean City, are three-sided booths.

Usually made of wood, the stands offer some shelter for the guards and allow them to be elevated above the fray of the crowd to more easily survey the waterfront for threatening currents, schools of jellyfish, sharks, or other hazards that could affect swimmers' safety. They post green flags to let the crowds know it is safe to swim, or red flags to indicate a restriction. And they issue terse alerts via whistle to those who fail to heed the warnings.

For some onlookers, the lifeguards' power center - and appeal - just may be that wooden stand.

Beach rules painted on stands - such as watching out for your own children or no ball playing - once included a not-so-subtle suggestion that discouraged flirting with the lifeguards.

"It said, 'No Talking to Guards,' " Ocean City Beach Patrol Capt. Tom Mullineaux said. "But we took that off in the last couple of years because we realized it might be scaring people from getting help from the guards."

Squad members now are instructed to always be polite - but not spend too much time talking to anyone, said lifeguard Kara Sulzer, 17, of Linwood.

"You are there to do a job that involves the safety of people," she said, "so you can't spend too much time talking."

But OK. In this girl-in-a-bikini, boy-in-swim-trunks, everybody-slathered-in-sunscreen-and-wearing-cool-sunglasses environment, romance does bloom sometimes, right?

"There's definitely an advantage to being a lifeguard when it comes to meeting girls," says Jackson Kirk, 20, of Ocean City. "Only problem is, when you're on the stand, you can't make eye contact because you have to watch the water. And that turns some girls off."

Some people cut right past that issue.

"Of course, it gives you points with girls," said lifeguard Dan Casey, 28, of Ocean City, a substitute teacher. "But it's about meeting all kinds of people . . . and being an ambassador for the city."

For others, the beach is where their life essentially began.

"My mom and dad met on the beach when my dad was a lifeguard," said Andrew Gallagher, 18, of Ocean City. His dad, Paul, is a lieutenant on the squad. "When I was little, I used to look up at my dad on the stand and think, 'Wow, I just want to be him.' . . . He just looked so cool up there."

Paul Gallagher calls it a "full-circle kind of thing in our family."

"It's definitely a tradition," he said, ". . . one that is almost sacred to a lot of people on the beach patrol."