Ship Bottom Beach Patrol: When Old Meets Young, Everyone Learns Something New

By Gina G. Scala | Jul 24, 2019
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Ship Bottom, NJ — Editor’s Note: This is the second in a six-week feature series, “Inside the Beach Patrols,” in which 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.

School’s out for the summer, but there’s still a lot of learning at the Ship Bottom Beach Patrol headquarters and on the beaches, too. And it’s not just the less experienced lifeguards and the lifeguard in training candidates who are learning.

On the morning of July 19, as the sun burned through what looked like what was sure to be a steel-gray beach day, veteran lifeguard Tracey Hemmerle brought her own questions to Keith Stokes, lifeguard chief/beach supervisor, for verification. She was looking for clarification for answers for a trivia game she was going to put into play Sunday – just another way to build off what makes this beach patrol tick.

“She’s a teacher. It’s her day off,” Stokes explained after Hemmerle left. “That’s what we have here; we don’t just clock in and clock out.”

It’s a common theme for beach patrols on Long Beach Island, which sees the bulk of its beachgoing season from June through September. Even with all their similarities, there is something unique about each one of them. So, what is it in Ship Bottom? Is it the borough’s designation as the place most likely to get day-tripping beachgoers, from near or afar? To the untrained eye, it seems as likely an answer as any.

Ask the same question to someone like Stokes, who has been head of the beach patrol here since 2002 after spending six full-time years as a lifeguard in Hawaii, and the answer may be a little surprising.

“The neat thing about Ship Bottom is the older population of lifeguards who return,” he said. “It (having an older population of lifeguards) establishes the framework (of what we do here).”

Ahh, yes: longevity. In addition to Stokes, who also worked summers as a borough lifeguard from 1993 to 1996, there’s Lt. Tom Smith, who has been part of the patrol for 24 summers. Hemmerle, a former Division 1 swimmer at the University of Texas, has been on board since 2004.

“The priority is the public, but there’s a sense of responsibility for the younger lifeguards,” Stokes said. “When you have a 16-year-old lifeguard sitting with a 45-year-old teacher (Stokes, Smith, and Hemmerle are all teachers), they have to talk.”

And they bond, too. It’s hard to mimic the bond lifeguards share, but it’s similar to those in other public service jobs where each person is asked to put their own life into someone else’s hands, he said.

“You can’t underestimate the power of observation,” Stokes said. “Older guards sitting the tower aren’t just saying (stuff); we lead by example. And they (the younger guards) want to emulate what they see, what they respect.”

The teaching that goes on while guarding the beach, though, is two-sided; keeping the older guards younger and giving the younger ones a glimpse at life experience they maybe haven’t had yet or are just beginning to see.

“It’s as real as it gets when someone puts their life in your hands,” Stokes said, and that’s what every lifeguard does every morning they show up for work, just like a normal beachgoer.

Because of its proximity to the Causeway, Ship Bottom draws about an even split of local day-trippers, those from around the LBI region, and day-trippers from afar, such as western Burlington County, according to Stokes.

“We’re busy,” he said. “What we see on a Monday or Tuesday some (beach patrols) only see on the 4th of July. We’re one of the busiest (beach patrols) on LBI.”

Since June 15, the beach patrol has helped find 11 missing children (which is more common than one may think), performed more than 100 assists and successfully completed 14 saves, full-on rescues, he said.

Stokes attributes their success to the relationship between the older, more experienced guards and the younger lifeguards. Most of the Ship Bottom lifeguards have come up through the ranks of the borough’s junior lifeguard program, he said. Eligible candidates must be between the ages of 10 and 15. The age groups are broken down into two: 10 to 12 and 13 to 15. At 16, candidates are eligible to be lifeguards.

“We have a reputation as being fun,” Stokes said, noting lifeguards aren’t just close during the summer season, but all year. “We’re a family. We don’t just say it. We hang out in the offseason; some go snowboarding in the winter. The friendships are year ’round.”

— Gina G. Scala

(File Photo by: Ryan Morrill)
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