New Jersey puts up with a lot. Once past the obligatory
deification of Bruce Springsteen, Asbury Park's gift to the
world, there's little else besides jokes about the malodorous oil
refineries and swamps in north Jersey, the moldering undiscovered
remains of Jimmy Hoffa at Giants Stadium and the sun-deprived,
rheumy-eyed casino pilgrims in Atlantic City. Garden State indeed!
But most natives, and a large number of tourists who would never
consider yanking a slot-machine lever, know different. In the
summer months New Jersey is all about white sand and wild surf,
covering more than 100 miles of continuous beach that stretches
from Sandy Hook in the north to Cape May at the southern tip.
"We have the best beaches anywhere," says Warren Brown, a
54-year-old Atlantic City lifeguard who has been, as the guards
put it, "on the beach" since he was 16. "If people don't believe
it, that's their loss." Spoken with true Joisy 'tude.
So it was no surprise last week that the Springsteen State, not
California or Florida, was the place to see suntanned,
Speedo-clad dudes and dudettes engaged in water sports for
whistle-blowers. Last Thursday through Saturday more than 750
competitors from all over the country descended on Cape May for
the National Lifeguard Championships (sponsored by the U.S.
Lifesaving Association, or USLA), a potpourri of 14 events that
drew an estimated 30,000 fans. And last Friday evening the South
Jersey Lifeguard Championships, believed to be the oldest such
competition in the country (it dates from 1924), drew about 50
contestants in Ventnor, the town just south of Atlantic City,
with more than 1,000 spectators on the beach and another couple
hundred stopping to watch along the boardwalk.
Only about 40 miles of Garden State Parkway separate Ventnor from
Cape May, so it was a simple matter for fans to attend both
competitions. The South Jerseys were only about one hour in
duration, compared with the three-day nationals, but the schedule
was hard on those who wanted to compete in both. Paul Mangen of
Ocean City, N.J., won his heat in the surf swim off Cape May on
Friday but skipped the final so he could be in the swim at the
South Jerseys, which he won. "It's kind of bittersweet," said
Mangen after his win, "but I couldn't miss this."
Other lifeguards weren't as quick to praise the South Jerseys.
Sven Peltonen, a guard in Brigantine, N.J., was miffed at
organizers for keeping the competition on the same weekend as the
nationals. "If they're so into tradition," said Peltonen, "why
don't they wear old-fashioned woolen suits and row wooden boats?
They're only hurting the guards, because the nationals is the big
Indeed, to the USLA organizers, the South Jerseys are parochial
and stuck in the past. To the South Jerseyites, meanwhile, the
nationals are a sideshow that has gussied up what should be a
basic test of rowing and swimming. One crowd-pleasing event at
the nationals is called "beach flags," a race in which
competitors leap from a prone position and try to claim rubber
hoses stuck in the sand 20 meters away. (There is always one
fewer hose than there are competitors.) "If you can tell me what
diving in the sand for a piece of hose has to do with
lifeguarding, I'd appreciate it," says Lou Paludi, a former chief
of Ventnor's guards and a judge at this year's South Jerseys.
USLA officials don't dispute that their competition is filled
with bells and whistles. They're trying to increase the USLA's
numbers so that they can standardize lifeguard certification and
form a stronger lobby to improve "working conditions."
(Translation: boost pay; all agree you can't improve on sun and
sand as a working environment.)
No matter which competition was your favorite, though, New Jersey
proved to be, as always, lifeguard-friendly. "I can't tell you
the last time I paid for a lunch around here," says Cape May
guard Max Samuelson, who competed in the Landline Rescue Team
Relay at the nationals. "Part of the appeal of the job is how
much respect you get." Victor Fox, who finished 12th at the
nationals, agrees. Though he moved from Cape May to Hollywood,
Fla., to work on the beach full time, Fox's heart remains in the
Garden State. "People in Florida are in the water 12 months a
year," says Fox, "yet New Jerseyites are much better in the
ocean. They understand it, and they understand what lifeguards
are trying to do."
No one knows that better than Jim Whelan, who served three terms
as Atlantic City's mayor (from 1990 to 2002) but is almost as
well-known locally for winning South Jersey's 3/4-mile swims in
'70 and '71 when he was on the beach in AC. "I raised about
$300,000 to get elected," says Whelan, who was in Ventnor for the
South Jerseys on Friday, "and at least half of that came from
guards and ex-guards. Respect for lifeguards is ingrained in the
Perhaps it's the history. Lifeguards have been watching over the
beaches in Atlantic City and Cape May, the nation's oldest
seashore resorts, for about 100 years. And as far back as 1848,
the United States Life-Saving Service, the precursor to both the
U.S. Coast Guard and the Jersey lifeguard units, patrolled the
state's beaches to rescue victims of the hundreds of ships that
wrecked in rough waters close to shore. In July 1916 several New
Jersey lifeguards--then called "life guardsmen"--were involved in
rescuing victims of a wave of shark attacks that killed four and
injured one other in what has come to be called "twelve days of
This summer the problem hasn't been sharks; it's been the ocean.
Several south Jersey patrols were on course to break their
records for rescues--through Sunday, Atlantic City guards had
saved 611 people--largely because of unpredictable rip currents
and unseasonably cold water that has practically paralyzed some
swimmers. "The stereotype of the lifeguard is one thing," says
USLA official Dick Colosi, who has been a guard in Cape May for
43 years, "but what's forgotten is that we save lives."
Many Jersey guards think that the average compensation, from $60
to $100 a day, does not match the responsibility. But few
complain loudly, and the lucky ones (many of them schoolteachers)
stay on the beach well into their 50s, living a dual existence.
From September to May they work in the classroom so that, come
June, they can pick up the whistle, take off their shoes, and
head, as they say in Jersey, downa shore. "I've been recruited to
be a full-time lifeguard elsewhere, but being in Jersey is a
better fit for me," says Billy George, 40, a guard from Monmouth
County in central Jersey who won his fifth national title in the
surfboat race last weekend. George is a school administrator who
stays in shape with weight training and rowing-machine work in
the nine-month off-season. "I love my full-time job," he says,
"but the beach is always in the back of my mind. I can't imagine
ever giving it up."
Neither can Max Bilkins, 51, and Bick Murphy, 44, the oldest
lifeguards at the South Jerseys, who finished a surprising third
for Wildwood Crest in the doubles row. Bilkins, the athletic
director at George Washington High in Philadelphia, has had two
left hip replacements, but on he goes, reconnecting each summer
with Murphy, a lecturer at Emory University. They were every bit
as satisfied with their performance as were the impossibly
bronzed and blond 25-year-old Funk twins, Andrew and David, whose
rowing heroics gave Ventnor the title. But Bilkins and Murphy
didn't stay long at the trophy ceremony. "Springsteen's in
Philly," said Bilkins, "and we got tickets." That is so Jersey.
For more about sports in New Jersey and the other 49 states, go
Because of rip currents and unseasonably cold water this year,
some south Jersey patrols are on course to break their records
for real-life rescues.