Inside the Beach Patrols

Generation After Generation, Harvey Cedars Beach Patrol Continues In Its Care for the Community

By DAVID BIGGY | Jul 17, 2019
Photo by: David Biggy Harvey Cedars Beach patrol lifeguard Zeke Hill (right) talks with John and Ivana Sferra while on duty at the 80th Street beach. Hill is in his 42nd season as a Harvey Cedars guard.

Harvey Cedars, NJ — Editor’s Note: From July 17 through Aug. 21, in this six-week feature series, “Inside the Beach Patrols,” Gina G. Scala and David Biggy explore the uniqueness, flair and prestige of each of the six beach patrols on Long Beach Island, and why visitors and residents can feel safe throughout the summer.

When Mike Weiler and Zeke Hill describe the Harvey Cedars Beach Patrol as a family, they’re not simply using some generic cliché often heard from many organizations to try to prove the closeness of those involved. What the oldest lifeguards on the patrol mean is quite literal. It’s not a family atmosphere that permeates HCBP. It’s a familial legacy that has built the basis and strengthened the fabric of everything related to it.

And it goes back a long way – to 1848, when Sammy Perrine first established the first building in town utilized to store a boat and rescue equipment.

“There is a big generational influence to this beach patrol,” said Hill, who not only grew up in Harvey Cedars, but is in his 42nd consecutive year of service as a lifeguard, including a stint as its captain that ended 12 years ago. “We have a compact town in a small area, but we have a huge family element. There are a lot of people who are now grandparents, whose children were lifeguards, and now their grandchildren are lifeguards. Generation after generation, this beach patrol has been built by many families.”

Weiler certainly knows. He grew up spending his summers in a house on Maiden Lane and has seen generations of lifeguards come through the system.

“There’s a lot of second- and third-generation involvement here,” said Weiler, who started guarding on 75th Street in 1972, where an 18-year-old Hill first developed an interest in doing what he described as a dream job. “We have a small-town hamlet right here in the center of a densely populated region, and it’s always been a tiny, family-oriented community.”

And long before the Hills and Weilers, there were the Perrines, Berrys, Campbells, Goldsteins, Kowalskis, Nistads and many others – generations of families that carried on the tradition of keeping the public safe on the beaches of Harvey Cedars.

“It’s my hometown and I’m biased, but there’s no better town than Harvey Cedars,” Hill said. “It’s a tight-knit community, and you just can’t beat it. Give us the beach, the waves, some sun, and it’s all great.”

The same things that make Harvey Cedars the close-knit, family-oriented community it is seem to translate into a beach patrol that also is highly community focused, a crew that understands its community and for the most part has a very good relationship with the public it serves.

“Some things have changed over the years, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is the heart and soul of this beach patrol,” said Randy Townsend, HCBP’s captain of the past 11 years. “We’ve always been the happy-go-lucky group which loves working for this town, serving the public of this small but great community. When I look at our lifeguards, I see men and women who really want to be here. They’re not just here to have a cool summer job and collect a check. They do this job because they love it and they love the town of Harvey Cedars.”

That love can be heard in Weiler’s and Hill’s voices. They don’t simply do a job – as cool as it is, and they know it – but everything they do every day on the beach is about caring for a community they love. So much so that when they talk about the families they’ve seen blossom over the years, a smile grows on their faces.

“I’ve been guarding 80th Street for the past 12 years, and I see the same people every year,” Hill said. “The O’Maras ... the Shermans ... the Levines ... the Hathaways ... the Sferras ... they’re all friends I’ve come to know, and I enjoy seeing them whenever they’re here on the beach.”

Weiler couldn’t shake the feeling he was forgetting somebody; that’s how many people he’s come to know over the years.

“The Clays ... the Rogers family ... the Burkhardts and the Goldsteins ... there are so many, it’s crazy,” he said. “Everybody knows everybody, and we take care of each other and have a tremendous culture here.”

And, yes, the culture has changed a little bit, at least within the beach patrol. For a long time, especially under Hill’s leadership, surfers and a few good rowers were the prominent go-to guys among them. In fact, the team mascot, the Vikings, was developed by Weiler based on “the thought that our rowers were a lot like the old Vikings, so we went with that.”

However, and Hill admits it, having a large crew of surfers – despite the fact they were excellent watermen, extremely knowledgeable about the ocean and handled pressure situations very well – and a few good rowers “didn’t make us great in the races.” And it was that reputation that ultimately stirred discussion among the leadership when Townsend took over as captain.

“We were the Bad News Bears at the time,” said Townsend, who started with the patrol as an 18-year-old surfer in 1997. “We had the reputation of just being a bunch of dudes having a good time, but not doing so well in competition. When I took over, I put an emphasis on developing a better competition team, and that ultimately meant we were going to be a better-trained beach patrol.

“And isn’t that the purpose of us being out here? If our guards are better trained to race, doesn’t that mean they’re going to be able to get to your son or daughter, who may be in a difficult situation in the water, a little faster? Isn’t five seconds faster the difference between life and death? There was a need for us to be better.”

Of course, the extra training – which most members of the patrol do during breaks from sitting on the stands, or during the hours before starting their shifts at 10 a.m. – has translated into a much better competition squad, as evidenced by four straight Island Tournament championships. But it’s also tightened up what already was a tight-knit crew, Townsend said.

Additionally, it’s created a vast interest among youngsters who have seen the success the Vikings have been having, and they want to be a part of it. This year, the HCBP Lifeguard-in-Training program has 114 kids ages 10 to 15.

“When Mike O’Hara and Robert Burnaford started the LIT program 15 years ago, they saw the need to have our local kids becoming better prepared to be lifeguards so that they were ahead of the curve when they finally made it onto the patrol,” Townsend said. “And now our LIT program is so strong, I believe it’s actually made us that much tighter as a community.”

But it didn’t just happen that way. Besides the hours Townsend spends putting together a sound organizational structure – something he designed with the help of input he had received from Surf City Beach Patrol supervisor Mark Dileo when he first took over as captain – as well as a top-notch training program for his guards, HCBP receives a load of support from administration within borough hall.

“The relationship between us, the mayor, the chief of police and other groups, such as the first aid squad, is amazing,” said Ryan Corcoran, who’s been guarding the Middlesex Avenue beach for eight years. “That’s one of the elements of this community I find most interesting. We’re all part of something bigger, and I’ve not lived anywhere in which the fabric of the town is so interwoven.”

Weiler said the effectiveness of today’s Harvey Cedars Beach Patrol is a direct reflection of the borough’s leadership, starting with Mayor Jonathan Oldham and its commissioners, Judith Gerkens and Michael Garofalo.

“In addition to having a great captain, a man who really leads from the front, we have great support from the town,” Weiler said. “From Jon Oldham to our commissioners to our chief of police, Robert Burnaford, and many others, we have a fantastic support system. They’re always behind us, believing in what we’re doing, because it’s for the benefit of the public, and they never waver in that support. Our beaches are tremendously safe because of their support for us. And it’s a blessing and an honor to be a part of this beach patrol. It’s an awesome community.”

John Sferra, a drummer with the band The Verdict who’s spent summers in Harvey Cedars since 1962 and frequents the beach Hill guards, echoed Weiler’s viewpoint.

“I’ve gotten to know a lot of the lifeguards on these beaches over the years, and they’ve always been great,” he said. “They’ve always had a great effect within the community, and their relationship with the people who come to the beach every day is special.

“Things have changed over the years. Things are more advanced. They have better equipment and tools they can use to save lives, but knowing they’re here and they’re so good at what they do absolutely makes me feel safer on the beach.”


Harvey Cedars Beach Patrol, By the Numbers

Area of Beach Space Patrolled – 2.2 miles

Number of Guarded Beaches – 13

Number of Lifeguards Employed – 62

Most Experienced Lifeguard’s Years of Service – 41

Year Established – 1848

Number of LIT Recruits – 114

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