VENTNOR, N.J. - Last Saturday, I was someplace I very rarely am early in the morning, or really any time - hanging onto a surfboard out in the ocean, past the Ventnor Pier. I was there only because there were no waves and because there might be dolphins. I stood up on the board for a total of about two minutes, but spent the rest of the time just out there, sitting, on Lake Atlantic, as they say.
We had gone out at the Dorset Avenue beach, not a surfing beach, but OK because it was before the lifeguards arrived. Then, all of a sudden, all the lifeguards were there. They gathered in a huddle on the beach at Somerset Avenue, a few blocks from me, near headquarters, and then they were out in the water en masse, some on surfboards, some swimming, others loaded into a few surf boats, paddling and rowing out to the area past the flags that were still set up from the Goudy lifeguard races a few days before.
I watched from the calm ocean, a few hundred yards away.
I knew why they were there. The lifeguards were honoring one of their own with a traditional "paddle out" ceremony: Billy Howarth, a.k.a. "Fish," ace swimmer, coach, retired firefighter, and longtime captain of the Ventnor City Beach Patrol, dead at age 61 after a long and agonizing battle with pancreatic cancer. I felt lucky to be out there in the water at such a time, Capt. Howarth's last trip out to the swim flag.
I watched as they formed a floating circle around the flag.
Howarth was a legend and also a very nice guy. The father of three daughters, Megan, Nancy, and Courtney, who all were swimmers and lifeguards, he championed women as athletes and on the beach patrol. A true coach by instinct, Howarth led his Atlantic City High School girls' swim teams to championships and greatness. Howarth oversaw teams of diversity and achievement years before anyone ever heard of Simone Manuel. One year, reflecting true Atlantic High Viking pride, his top relay swimmers were black, white, and Asian. He coached them to historic state victories, then said goodbye as they went on to the likes of Harvard, Howard, and Tennessee.
In the summers, he continued to champion female athletes, organizing the Cape Atlantic Women's Lifeguard Invitational, held in Ventnor every year. This year, with Howarth's health failing, the event was renamed after him. "Stay the course," said the bracelets the lifeguards sold in his honor.
About a year after he got sick, I ran into Howarth at Ventnor's City Hall. He was so thin that he was almost unrecognizable. He told me how one of his prized swimmers had come back after a year at college, somewhat discouraged, and how he had taken her out in the surf boat, rowed past the waves, and had a talk. That was the place to restore someone's spirit with some quiet words of encouragement and perspective.
So it was to this same place by the swim flag that all the Ventnor lifeguards, family, and friends went out to honor Howarth with a surfer-style circle, carrying his ashes in blue glass bottles.
As I watched, the calm ocean abruptly changed from Lake Atlantic to one with some sudden large swells that startled me. When I researched "paddle out memorial ceremonies" later, there were many instances of people saying that a lone dolphin showed up or that a sudden single wave kicked up just as the surfers formed their circle, said to be a sign of the departed one's saying goodbye. Well, I was out there in those waters and can say that's exactly what happened.
It was Lake Atlantic, then it was Billy Howarth's Atlantic, then calm again.
In headquarters a few days later, Lt. Gary Howarth, one of Bill's three surviving brothers from this heroic family of firefighters and lifeguards, said he, too, felt the sudden swell as he rowed out in a boat with Ventnor Beach Patrol Chief Stan Bergman, Billy's longtime partner. He recalled how strong a swimmer his brother was - three times, he did the 22.5-mile Around the Island swim, and swam on scholarship at Temple University, and then American University. He recalled how they called him "Fish" and used to send him diving down in the ocean with a knife in his mouth to cut the ropes or fix the flags used to designate where the racers turn around in rowboats or while swimming. He recalled the fight against a disease expected to take him much more quickly.
It was at this swim flag that Howarth's ashes were poured out by his daughters; his wife, Patty; his brothers, Charles, Gary, and Kevin; and others Saturday morning. The timing of his death was eerie, Gary Howarth said, coming just a few days after the women's championship and the morning after the big South Jersey's, the signature lifeguard race of the season.
Because his death was at the height of the season, the 48th season in which Howarth showed up at headquarters, his lifeguards were all present for the roll call on the beach that preceded the pouring of his ashes out in the ocean. A few days before, Margate and Longport lifeguards had covered the beaches for them during his funeral.
"That's where he should be," Gary Howarth said. "At the swim flag at Ventnor City, New Jersey."
The family's obituary stated: "Bill taught his girls to slow down, relax, have fun, and stay close to God (Stay the Course)."
Bill Hewitt, Howarth's longtime rowing partner, commented on Facebook, "Ventnor is a little less Ventnor without Bill."