In Wildwood, an alternative to lugging your stuff over the sand

Wildwood's Beach Patrol leases three John Deere Gators for use as taxis that are plying 1.2 miles of beach between Cresse and 26th Avenues.
Wildwood's Beach Patrol leases three John Deere Gators for use as taxis that are plying 1.2 miles of beach between Cresse and 26th Avenues. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 04, 2014

WILDWOOD, N.J. - After traveling 200-plus miles from his home in Wilkes-Barre to the Shore for a beach trip, a trek from the boardwalk to the water seemed daunting for Mike Petsko.

"We had all this stuff - and three little kids," Petsko, 34, said, pointing out to three small coolers, bags, a stroller, two boogie boards, and a cart filled with toys and other items.

But he got a little help - for a price.

Petsko and a friend made the walk across the sand to the ocean, as his wife and children - ages 2, 9, and 13 - boarded a John Deere Gator with their belongings for a ride that cost less than $10.

It was a welcome relief for Petsko. For Wildwood's Beach Patrol, it was just another transport on its "beach taxi" logs.

As big-city cab competition increases with new players - such as Uber - this Shore destination is capitalizing on the open turf that is the sand.

The Beach Patrol began operating the taxis this year, a service with a simple purpose: Take passengers from the street to the water or back.

"They just loaded everything in the back," Petsko said. "It was perfect."

Beach Patrol Chief Steve Stocks said the program fills a "glaring need" for visitors such as Petsko, who want help lugging their stuff, especially on hot days. At its farthest point, the distance totals about a quarter-mile.

"We're one of the only beaches that seems to grow every year without beach replenishment," Stocks said.

The idea is also an extension from the rides his lifeguards were already conducting for visitors who physically couldn't do the walk.

"All this transportation we were doing as lifeguards was intruding on their lifeguarding duties," said Stocks. The free transports also attracted the occasional beachgoer who would flash money in pursuit of a lift.

"We just thought it would make sense," Stocks said, to offer a paid service.

The patrol has leased three Gators - low-to-the-ground, four-wheel vehicles that look like golf carts evolved and that seat three passengers - to span 1.2 miles of beach between Cresse and 26th Avenues.

Five employees, four of whom are part time, run the program. Rides run 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. all days, and cost $3 for adults, $2 for those under 12 and senior citizens, and $1 for those with disabilities.

At lifeguard headquarters near Lincoln Street, Daniel Duffy, 66, fields calls on the cellphone designated for pickups, and radios to drivers - a separate communication from the lifeguards.

Duffy, a 29-year veteran of the Philadelphia Fire Department who later worked as a dispatcher for the Wildwood Police Department, said a recent day logged 50 transports, some consisting of multiple passengers. Since beginning Memorial Day weekend, taxis have served approximately 3,000 riders.

The taxis are split among South, Central, and North sections of the beach. White flags reading "taxi" make their purpose known.

Jim Kenny, 64, was brought on last year to help with free rides for those with limited mobility.

"I love this job," said Kenny, an American history teacher at Council Rock High School South in Holland, Bucks County. When there are no calls, he "fishes" - approaching walkers near the water or boardwalk and informing them of the service and how to use it.

The approaches are not always successful.

One recent afternoon Kenny pitched the ride to three women approaching the beach near Schellenger Avenue. The women were not fond of the price.

"It should be free!" one shouted back.

Kenny smiled.

"The beach is free, the air is free, the taxi's not," he said, before whizzing off in the sand.

Stocks admits there are people who would not consider coughing up a few dollars for the ride. Others, he said, call in advance and want a round-trip. Often a group will chip in and send one comrade on the taxi with their belongings.

The patrol gained approval for the summer from City Council this year, but Stocks hopes the program will be renewed again if success is determined at season's end. He is already thinking about summerlong or weekly pass possibilities.

In addition to the rides, he said, the drivers are told to offer dining or entertainment recommendations.

"We want them to be ambassadors for the city," Stocks said, saying drivers sometimes offer candy and magnets to youngsters on the ride.

Even skeptics might come around - including the women who declined Kenny's ride.

"It's a good idea," Rose Ehly, 75, also of Holland, conceded later, sitting near the ocean with her daughter and granddaughter after the trek by foot.

"I think it should be cheaper," Ehly said from behind her sunglasses. "I would've done it on a sunny day. Maybe we'll take it back."

856-779-3917 @AJFichera

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