Shore lifeguards mark end of another summer

Ocean City lifeguard Cory Raab patrols the surf (foreground) as a paddle boarder goes by on Monday.
Ocean City lifeguard Cory Raab patrols the surf (foreground) as a paddle boarder goes by on Monday. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 03, 2014

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - As Labor Day weekend traffic squeezed onto the expressways, returning the masses to work and school at this unofficial end to summer, the crowds had dwindled considerably around Chris Denn's lifeguard chair.

On any other hot, humid summer afternoon, Denn said, there would have been as many as 1,200 people lingering on the St. Charles Place beach. And 200 more in the water when it was time for Denn and the other lifeguards to wrap up their beach patrol duties for the day.

Up and down the seven-mile-long barrier island this summer, there could have been as many as 100,000 people on the beach each day, soaking up sun and surf along this Cape May County resort - about 3.5 million beachgoers a year, officials said.

"By the end of today, even as hot as it is, there will hardly be anyone left," predicted Denn, 43, a high school phys-ed teacher and senior lifeguard, who has been a member of the beach patrol here for 28 years. "Most people will have headed home."

But on Monday, for the last time this summer, Denn and a team of others would move their lifesaving operation to another beach - an even more populated spot around Ninth Street - to continue monitoring swimmers until around 8 p.m.

Despite signs posted at each beach entrance warning bathers not to swim after hours or on unguarded beaches, most accidents occur when the lifeguards have gone home for the day or after beach patrols have ceased for the season, officials said.

"This quickly becomes the most difficult part of the year for water rescues, because people continue to be tempted by the warm surf even if lifeguards aren't around," said Denn, of the current 75-degree ocean temperature.

While it wasn't necessarily in response to an early season after-hours drowning of a Philadelphia teen, the city in midsummer created an "After Hours" program that expanded the hours that lifeguards were on duty at three of Ocean City's 43 guarded beaches - Eighth, Ninth and 12th Streets - said Tom Mullineaux, 67, chief of operations for the Ocean City Beach Patrol.

Mullineaux said the new program was one that had been discussed for a while, and was part of what the city's Rapid Response Team created several years ago to assist in off-hours water rescues.

Ocean City's move to expand lifesaving hours appeared to be part of a trend this summer. Atlantic City and Island Beach State Park officially scheduled extended hours and other towns did so on a less-formal basis. And Island Beach, for the first time, will extend its schedule. Other towns provided additional coverage on a less formal basis.

Island Beach State Park last week announced it would provide lifeguard protection on its swimming beaches Friday through Monday until the end of September.

"The weather and the water are still warm and our attendance remains high in September," read a statement by Richard Boornazian, the state Department of Environmental Protection's assistant commissioner for natural and historic resources.

"By having our skilled lifeguard team at Island Beach State Park for long weekends throughout the month, visitors can more safely enjoy the water and experience and extended summer," said Boornazian, of the ocean beaches within the park.

Beaches in New Jersey are among the most highly monitored swimming areas in the country, with some of the oldest operational lifeguard organizations in the U.S. By 1872, Atlantic City had created the first formal beach patrol in the nation, with about 20 members. Ocean City followed suit by 1898.

"And our mission has never really changed. We are here to educate and delegate safety to beach patrons," said Denn, between sharp whistle blows to bathers who had ventured too far out of the range of the green flags that lifeguards use to designate where it is safe to swim. "Our sign says 'Never Take a Vacation from Safety.' That's what we urge people to do."

Denn said that, every year as the summer wanes, the beach patrol faces a conundrum when the staff dwindles from about 165 people down to a few dozen. There are still miles of oceanfront to cover, while the surf grows more dangerous because of late-season storms and subsequent rip currents.

"The water is still warm and people still want to go in," Denn said. "But there are far less eyeballs to monitor that."

Mullineaux said that beginning Tuesday and running through Sunday, the Ocean City Beach Patrol will guard eight beaches: St. Charles Place, Brighton Place, and Eighth, Ninth, 10th, 12th, 34th and 58th Streets, weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

For more information about Ocean City's guarded beaches, refer to radio 1620 AM or Ocean City TV information channel 97.


Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

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