CAPE MAY - Like an army vigilant in a singular mission, a uniformed patrol took to the beach for the 100th time Saturday, the unofficial start of the 2011 summer season.
Despite the active surf - one of the most roiling at the New Jersey Shore as the Atlantic Ocean meets the Delaware Bay at the state's southernmost tip - the Cape May Beach Patrol can celebrate its centennial by reveling in a remarkable record: Not a single person has drowned on a beach it was protecting.
"That record has to do with training, with a certain understanding of what the conditions are here and with procedures and traditions that have been passed down through the years," said Beach Patrol Capt. Harry "Buzz" Mogck. "We have systems in place and backup systems that have backups."
The patrol has to, Mogck contends, because as the tide moves in and out along the city's 2.5 miles of beachfront, it creates a fast-moving wall of water that can push and pull swimmers quickly into dangerously deep and rough territory.
Mogck, 67, himself has an impressive record, having captained the beach patrol for nearly one-third of its existence.
When he returned home from military service in 1967, he found that his parents had sold the family marina business and he had no job. So he joined the beach patrol and worked as a lifeguard until being named captain in 1980. Its previous leader, Clete Cannone, who held the post for 32 years, had passed away.
"I can't think of anything else I would rather be doing or any other job I could have enjoyed more over the past 31 years," Mogck said. "I've lived here all my life."
Often touted as America's first beach resort, Cape May began unofficial beach rescue operations as early as 1845, when primitive equipment called "rescue ropes" was hung on the outside of bathing houses that lined the shore. If someone called for help, whoever was close by could throw a line into the surf in hopes that the troubled swimmer could grab hold and be pulled to safety, Mogck said.
Later, whaleboats, which may have been put out of service by a dwindling leviathan population and an increase in excursionists, were manned with "stout hearts and ready hands" to rescue wayward bathers.
By 1865, the larger beachfront hotels - including the United States Hotel and the old Columbia House - hired their own crews. Rivalries developed between the crews, and lifeboat races were held to entertain summer guests, Mogck said.
The city decided in 1911 that it needed a more formal organization to watch over ocean swimmers, and it formed the Cape May Beach Patrol with paid, professional lifeguards.
While personnel, equipment and a few procedures might have changed through the years, the group's objectives have remained the same.
From 25 stands, 54 lifeguards attend to nearly 300 rescues and more than 300 calls for first aid each year from Memorial Day until several weeks after Labor Day, depending on the weather. The patrol also includes five lieutenants and a headquarters staffer to help direct operations.
While there have certainly been some close calls with swimmers over the years, the patrol's biggest test was the June 1982 crash of a U.S. Navy helicopter at the beach's southern end. Mogck saw the copter hover over an area called the Cove Beach for what seemed like an eternity and then "just drop out of the sky."
"Nobody knows what really happened, but if it had fallen 30 or 40 feet closer to shore, it would have landed right in the middle of a crowded beach," Mogck said.
Thanks to their training, patrol members sprang into action and were able to save seven of the helicopter's eight crew members.
In August, for fifth time in its history, the Cape May Beach Patrol will host the United States Lifeguard Championships. The event will draw nearly 1,500 lifeguards and junior lifeguards from around the country.
"It's fun because we have a chance to share what we know about ocean rescues with others, and we can learn new things from them while we all compete together," Mogck said. "It kind of goes back to when those first hotel crews competed with each other."