Built for efficiency, not the comfort of those who spend hot, daylong shifts perched atop them, the towers elevate guards above the crowds for a better view.
Lifeguard stands may soon get a makeover. Beach patrol members here and in Cape May are testing a prototype made of aluminum instead of the traditional wood.
The idea is to devise a lighter, more portable model that is resistant to vandalism and weather damage, said Mike Seaverns, owner of Heritage Towers, a Cape May company that builds aluminum towers for sportfishing boats.
Unlike in Florida and California, where the surf line remains relatively unchanged during the day, enabling guards to man permanent stations, high and low tide can vary dramatically in New Jersey. Lifeguard stands must be moved often, Steele said.
"Guards have ended up with hamstring injuries and back problems from lifting the chairs. As more and more women have joined the beach patrol, we've seen a growing need to make these chairs lighter," said Steele, noting that about a quarter of his squad's 88 members are female.
The wood chairs, left out overnight on beaches up and down the coast without incident, are targets of vandalism by Sea Isle's rowdy partyers, Steele said. One of his lieutenants repairs or rebuilds as many as four a week in a makeshift workshop at patrol headquarters at 44th Street.
"The wood rots quickly because of the salt air . . . and vandalism at night is rampant," Steele said. "We need something out here that's virtually indestructible."
Enter Heritage Towers and its design. Cape May and Sea Isle City each received an aluminum prototype, which Seaverns plans to refine over at least one more season. The goal is a chair that is lighter and more comfortable than the current stands, but sturdy enough to stay put in heavy winds or a freak high tide.
Aluminum refracts heat, so lifeguards won't get scorched by the metal, Seaverns said. And the engineers with whom he has worked say that they pose no additional danger in an electrical storm.
"I've been told that someone pulling an aluminum lifeguard stand off the beach is no more at risk than a guy carrying an aluminum beach umbrella off the beach at the same time," Seaverns said. A lightning strike would "go in and back out" of the chairs, which are no taller than the traditional models.
Common sense, he said, should dictate that in the event of a storm that the lifeguard would clear the beach as usual, getting bathers and himself or herself away from the beachfront as quickly as possible.
As of now, the prototypes are 157 pounds, not much less than those made of pressure-treated wood, which are 180 pounds. Whether the current price of $2,000 would prove cost-effective over time - wood chairs are about $300 - is a calculation for towns to determine.
Sea Isle's aluminum chair can be seen on the 44th Street beach and Cape May's is at Grant Street.
"I like the new chair. It seems pretty comfortable," said Sea Isle lifeguard Doug Nowak, a patrol member for several years.
During his career, Steele has seen the design of lifeguard stands evolve. When he started with the beach patrol, Sea Isle's were like those still used in neighboring Ocean City - a blue-and-white painted stand that's more like a phone booth.
Guards in Ocean City - and in Atlantic City, which has used the three-sided booth structures since the 1920s - can take shelter from the sun inside the stand or they can sit on its roof for a bird's eye view.
"I think our design is really the best for the comfort of the lifeguard, but I'm prejudiced," said Ocean City historian Fred Miller, a former guard there who has written a history of the town's squad, founded a half-dozen years after Atlantic City established the first beach patrol in 1892.
Miller says the booth idea probably came from Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Jack Jernee, "an amazing character" who helped shape a revered, award-winning organization that attracted top athletes.
Atlantic City's first stands were primitive affairs with only umbrellas to shield guards, said Atlantic City Beach Patrol Chief Rod Aluise. The ones with rooftops were first constructed for the resort by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. Brigantine, Ventnor, Margate, and Longport use similar versions.
In other towns - including Avalon, Stone Harbor, Cape May and the Wildwoods - stands look like Adirondack chairs on stilts, with each municipality adding its tweaks.
For example, the stands on the wide Wildwoods beaches are, well, wide: They can easily accommodate three guards. Officials say the design affords a more panoramic view.
And in Cape May, where New Jersey's lands-end has combined with beach replenishment projects and created a slight cliff that drops to the shallows, lifeguards have built taller structures so they can more easily survey the water below.
"It's interesting to see how each community modified their lifeguard stands to meet their needs over the years," said historian Miller.
Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.