Six Unique Beach Patrol Units, One Common Goal in Long Beach Township

By GINA G. SCALA | Aug 28, 2019
Photo by: Ryan Morrill A Long Beach Township lifeguard watches over beach-goers in the Holgate section of the township while a far off storm produces lightning out at sea.

Long Beach Township — Editor’s Note: This summer, Gina Scala and David Biggy have explored 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, in this six-week feature series, “Inside the Beach Patrols.” This is the final installment.

Family, by most longstanding dictionary standards, is defined by a common ancestor, a bloodline. That definition is outdated in today’s world, highlighted over the course of the last six weeks by the individual beach patrols on Long Beach Island.

“It’s not a blood thing,” Sean Moran, captain of Long Beach Township Beach Patrol’s Brant Beach squad, said recently. “It’s who you can count on.”

In Long Beach Township, there are 187 lifeguards who can count on each other as they protect 12 miles of non-contiguous oceanfront beaches, or two-thirds of the entirety of LBI. They’re also responsible for guarding two bayfront beaches. The one at Bayview Park in the Brant Beach section of the township is arguably one of the busiest bayfront areas on the Island.

“It’s a family within a family,” added Patrick Craig, a longtime Spray Beach guard, now a beach patrol chief, who returned for his 18th summer season in 2019. Craig met his wife when she was a township lifeguard, as did one of his brothers, also a Spray Beach lifeguard.

The camaraderie was evident on a recent tour of the township’s six beach patrol units. Loveladies and North Beach are on the north end of the Island; each guards six beaches. Brant Beach, Beach Haven Crest and Spray Beach (what the guards call Proper) are in the middle of the Island, somewhat, and are some of the busiest beaches in the township. There are a total of 35 guarded beaches in Brant Beach, Crest and Spray Beach; only two are bayfront beaches. At the southern tip of LBI, the Holgate unit guards eight beaches.

“There’s a good team atmosphere,” said Josh Wall, the 23-year veteran who heads up the Beach Haven Crest squad. “Every year it just keeps getting better. There’re small improvements; lifeguards’ ideas get heard and implemented. It’s almost a consensus” of what needs to change.

“He brings a ton of experience,” Craig said driving away from Wall and heading back to headquarters on 79th Street in the township. “You meet people, get to hear their stories and really see how small the world is. LBI is 18 miles, but everyone knows it.”

Julianna Perello, a former captain with the Holgate unit who works out of headquarters, credits the family atmosphere to the leadership of Tracey Schmidt, lifeguard operations/certification director; Josh Bligh, lifeguard operations; and Craig.

“It demonstrates trust that you can count on anyone to back you up,” said Perello, whose father was also a Holgate lifeguard.

Perello has learned that lesson again and again, but it was her first day on the job as a Holgate captain when she was called back to the beach to answer a four-person swimming in distress call in a nor’easter swell that stands out.

“I was by myself,” she said. “I don’t know what would have happened if there weren’t two off-duty guards surfing.”

The same but different. Township beaches are about as different from each other as they can be and still be located on the same barrier island. Some of the beaches are Wildwood-wide. Other are narrow as they mirror the shape of LBI. Then there is Holgate. The beaches there are wide in some areas, narrow in other places with a cliff that is reminiscent of a California beach and an inlet. Even the sand is different, making it more difficult to drive a truck on northern beaches than in the Proper or Holgate. In Brant Beach, Beach Haven Crest and Spray Beach, the sheer volume of beach-goers makes it challenging for guards traveling on ATVs or in a truck.

“LBI is a bit more treacherous (now),” said Mike Dancha, a 28-year veteran of the beach patrol working in North Beach. “Shifting sands and funny conditions pop up, but it feels like people are becoming more beach savvy.”

On most Island beaches – and those in the township are no different – there’s a mix of locals, seasonal regulars and summer visitors. Some of the visitors are here for a week’s vacation, some for two, and aren’t familiar with the ocean and don’t know local rules, Wall said.

“They use the ocean differently here,” Wall, who for the last 19 years has also guarded beaches in Sydney, Australia, said of beach-goers. “Being on/in the water is a way of life (in Australia). There’s 5,000 or 6,000 people in the water on Christmas Day.”

Some of the most challenging beaches to guard – and each has its own unique characteristics and obstacles – are generally found in the Proper. The beaches are wider and more crowded, especially 68th Street in Brant Beach, where many beach-going day-trippers like to spend their time. And in Spray Beach, where there are hotels, beach-goer turnover is more fluid than in other areas of the township.

“Loveladies is different,” Chris Burkhardt, a 20-year veteran and squad captain, said. “It’s less crowded than Brant Beach. There’s a lot of locals. It’s pretty easy to get to know the beachgoers. They’re friendly, and we rarely have issues with them; they’re really nice.”

Burkhardt, who lives in Hawaii for the rest of the year, said the biggest challenge for guards in Loveladies is the unguarded areas. There’s a roughly quarter-mile of unguarded beaches between Loveladies and its southern neighbor, Harvey Cedars.

While each area has its own  characteristics and challenges, the men and women who guard the beaches are trained the same.

“The main priority is public safety,” Craig said.  “Whether there’s five people or 500 people on the beach, we run it the same way.”

The job. Being a lifeguard, according to Craig, is as much about the mental aspect of the game and how an individual handles stress as it is the physical conditioning. In 1988, the township established its Lifeguard in Training program, designed to educate young men and women on all aspects of ocean lifeguarding. By the age of 16, the candidates are eligible to become full lifeguards.

“Some can take it,” Craig said. “Some don’t make it (that first year). They come back the next year.”

“It matures you,” Perello added, noting being a lifeguard taught her how to have difficult conversations with people, especially individuals who are older.

But it’s working with the younger guards that keeps the veterans young, according to Wall.

“I like their enthusiasm,” he said.

So does Perello.

“It’s so cool,” she said of mentoring younger guards. “It’s why I love this job.”

For those like Burkhardt, Craig, Dancha, Moran, Perello and Wall who do make it through that first year of lifeguarding, the experience is priceless.

“When you love what you do, it’s not really working,” Burkhardt said. “I get paid to do what I love.”

Moran, who grew up in North Beach and whose family has had ties to the beach patrol for years, called being a lifeguard “the coolest job in the world.”

“I love this job through and through,” he said. “When I don’t get to go in the ocean for a week, I’m crabby. This is my calm space.”

ggscala@thesandpaper.net

 

 

Long Beach Township Beach Patrol, by the numbers:

Area of Beach Space Patrolled – 12 miles

Number of Guarded Beaches – 55

Number of Lifeguards Employed – 187

Most Experienced Lifeguard’s Years of Service – 25+

Year Established – 1936

Number of LIT Recruits – 138

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