Ship Bottom Bucks Tradition by Guarding All Beaches Until 6 p.m. This Summer

By GINA G. SCALA | May 01, 2019
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill Ship Bottom Beach Patrol

Ship Bottom — Breaking with at least a half-century of tradition, ocean and bay beaches in Ship Bottom will be guarded until 6 p.m. daily throughout the summer season. Guarded beaches begin weekends only Memorial Day weekend until June 15, when lifeguards are on duty from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Labor Day.

“Public safety is the number one concern,” said Keith Stokes, borough beach patrol chief and lifeguard supervisor. “We see a lot of visitors – locals, too – after 5 p.m.”

Ship Bottom beaches are among the busiest on Long Beach Island because of their proximity to the Causeway, the only entry/exit point on the barrier island. Stokes, who has been head of the beach patrol since 2002, said he’s assessed beach conditions in the past to determine whether an evening crew is necessary, generally for times when the surf was rough ahead of a storm or if the beaches were extra crowded at 5 p.m. If there was a need, a mobile unit would patrol from 5 to 8 p.m., he said.

Other beach patrols also have mobile units after hours, but Ship Bottom is the first to keep all of its beaches, including the bay beach, guarded until 6 p.m.

“We’re definitely setting the tone,” Stokes said, acknowledging there are two types of beach people: “those who can’t wait for guards to leave at 5 p.m., they love to see us leave, and those who want to swim on protected beaches and feel safe.”

Public safety is as much about protecting the beaches and taking preventive measures as it is about providing lifeguards with time to train and down time to recoup from their duties.

“We take countless preventive action,” Stokes said of lifeguards who man local beaches. “We never know what’s going to happen when we jump in the water.”

As a result of the longer beach day, Ship Bottom lifeguards will work a five-day, 40-hour work week with two days off.

“It’s win-win,” Stokes said. “Two days off allows the guards to de-stress, refresh and come back ready to go.”

A majority of water rescues occur between 5 and 6 p.m., Rich McDonough, a member of the Ship Bottom water rescue team, said during the April 23 borough council meeting when the longer beach day was announced by Council President Ed English.

“They do the best they can,” Stokes said of the first responders who historically answer beach emergency calls after hours. “It’s great to have them, but time is of the essence, and if we can be there to jump in and stabilize someone, bring them in (back to shore) …”

Bob Selfridge, a Barnegat Light lifeguard and captain with the Barnegat Light First Aid Squad who is active with SALT-LBI, a free public education program aimed at teaching surfers and other skilled water lovers to safely aid individuals in distress, said some beachgoers don’t recognize the potential for danger.

“There is a way to approach someone in distress without putting yourself in danger,” Selfridge said. “We have to roll with the times. There’s more houses, more people (than ever before).”

In recent years, there has been a shift in when beachgoers arrive and leave beaches during the peak summer season. While some bring their beach chairs and umbrellas or tents to set up in the morning before lifeguards are on duty, they generally don’t arrive for good until after 10 a.m., and more are staying until at least 6 p.m. Additionally, the peak summer season is still only 10 weeks long, but the shoulder season in spring and again after Labor Day are becoming busier with festivals and beachgoers who want just a little more time on LBI.

“(We) have to roll with the times,” Selfridge declared again. “We have to change the culture (of guarding beaches until 5 p.m.).”

For Stokes, that was a somewhat easy task. He sat with Mayor William Huelsenbeck and English, who chairs the beaches and parks committee for the borough. Chief Financial Officer Kathy Flanagan was also part of the discussion.

“She was all over it. She was just incredible. I couldn’t be more appreciative of the town,” Stokes said, adding everyone was in agreement that adding an extra hour of guarded beach time was the right thing to do. “Money is money and a budget is a budget, but you can’t put a price tag on life.”

That’s why when it comes to the lifeguard competitions this year there could be a time Ship Bottom’s beach patrol isn’t represented.

“Competition is secondary,” Stokes said, noting that in years past getting to those events has never posed a problem, and he doesn’t foresee an issue this summer, either. But, he said, if it comes down to protecting the beaches and competing, then public safety wins out. “Public safety is number one.”

— Gina G. Scala

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