Rescue Squad

Text by Jennifer Kopp • Photographs by Michelle Giorla / August 2015

It’s a system of loyalty and trust. Loyalty to those who visit Cape May beaches, and trust among the lifeguards themselves. No occupation seems to embody the all-American summer like that of a well-tanned, able-bodied, vigilant and attentive lifeguard. Lifeguards sit upon their chair, constantly scanning the horizon looking for anything amiss. Clad in red and white, sunglasses and rescue boards nearby, the Cape May lifeguards are ready to rush into the ocean, putting their lives on the line at a moment’s notice. It is perhaps the most important job in Cape May.

Beach rescue operations here officially began around 1845, when rescue ropes were hung on bathhouses. Later, whaleboats, “manned with stout hearts and ready hands,” as the Cape May Beach Patrol wrote in 1991 in its annual yearbook, were stationed off the beaches. By 1865, the larger hotels hired crews to man the beaches.

In 1911, the Cape May Beach Patrol was officially established. Through the years the personnel, uniforms and equipment have changed but the objectives and purpose remain the same: to provide the City of Cape May with the finest in professional water safety and beach protection.

Safety and protection are proven in Cape May’s track record of not a single fatality in 104 years.

Becoming a lifeguard is no easy task. Applicants must be at least 16 years old, must swim 500 meters in under 10 minutes, run a half mile in under 3.45 seconds and of course, pass a physical. Those who pass then attend a week-long “Rookie School.”

Beach Patrol Captain Buzz Mogck has seen quite a few changes in lifeguard training in his 48 years with Cape May Beach Patrol. “When I got out of the Army and took the test to be a lifeguard,” Buzz recalls, “it was nothing more than a swimming test. As the years passed, knowledge of CPR, among other skills, became an important part of our training. Now during the summer, we constantly keep guards up on their training with various training scenarios each morning. Lifeguards today have to be all-around athletes. The physical tests are very similar to what you see in a triathlon.” There are approximately 20 new lifeguard applicants each year. Of that 20, he guesses that five to six will not be able to endure the training and will drop out. And it was only 20 years ago that the Beach Patrol started accepting female applicants.

Other changes came about when paddleboards became a mainstay to lifeguards all over the country. Though lifeguards still use traditional boats, paddleboards are much faster, and are equipped with side handles for victims to latch onto.

On the average, 58 lifeguards supervise as many as 30,000 beach patrons along Cape May’s three miles of beach.

Rookies are taken under the wing of a senior lifeguard for two to three years before they become seniors themselves.

Bob Cwik, Senior Lifeguard and 34-year veteran of the Beach Patrol, says each day lifeguards train an hour before they go on duty either swimming, running or paddleboarding.

Originally from western Pennsylvania, Bob spent his summers on the beaches of Cape May and as a child watched the lifeguards. “I always admired them and their lifestyle,” says Bob. But when graduated from college, he worked in the coal mines.

“I saw many deaths and illnesses,” Bob says. “It wasn’t for me.”

With his degree in teaching he moved to Cape May and commuted to Bridgeton as a high school administrator and track coach. With summers off, he followed his dream of becoming a lifeguard.

“I combined my two athletic strengths, my love of people—a most important aspect of the job —and patience.”

And it does take patience to deal with the different types of families Cape May attracts. More than scanning the ocean for water incidents, lost children is a big part of the job, as is educating kids on jellyfish and other sea creatures. Bob said he tells them what to touch and how to treat a jellyfish sting with vinegar. He also says when children get lost they tend to wander with the wind. He doesn’t know why—perhaps it’s just an innate reaction.

When asked about the shark sightings on the coasts of North Carolina and New Jersey, Bob says, “The sharks are scrambling around because the water temperature changed too quickly—from 60 degrees to 70 in a week.”

Kaitlin Black is a veteran of the Cape May Beach Patrol, having worked for seven years as a lifeguard before joining the Lower Township Police force. She is thankful for the lifeguard training and experience that she says has helped prepare her for the challenges of her career in law enforcement. She noted similarities in the situations between law enforcement and those she faced on beach patrol.

“I was a lifeguard at the age of 16, and I learned how to make a decision very quickly. Having that instilled in me from such a young age has made me a more responsible person,” says Kaitlin. “Are the two jobs similar? No and yes,” she said. “Yes, in each job, each person and each situation is different. Nothing is routine, very much like lifeguarding.”

“It’s crazy how quickly things happen,” Kaitlin says of one of the most harrowing incidents she recalls. “A little boy, about seven years old, was out on his boogie board. His mother was in the water with him. Within seconds, a rip current sucked him out. My partner took care of the mom and I went in for the little boy. I got to him, and he and I were right in the breaking point and I knew we were going to go under. I held onto him and said, ‘All right, buddy, hold your nose.’ We went under and came back up. At the end of the day, he came back and brought me flowers.”

Bob remembers his worst incident at The Cove Beach. He says it took 22 people forming a lifeguard chain to save one life.

Like Kaitlin Black, 28 year-old Sara Werner became a Cape May lifeguard at 16 and is now a filmmaker off-season. Sara explains how her lifeguarding career made her more aware of the physical changes in her body, and described the efforts required to maintain the level of physical excellence demanded of each lifeguard.

“When you’re a teen,” Sara explains, “you feel invincible. Getting older requires you to work harder at keeping yourself conditioned to return to the beach each summer. I go to the gym regularly and practice yoga. I’ve never felt stronger.”

Sara is working on a film adaptation of Stephen King’s short story The Things They Left Behind. She also understands how lifeguarding has sharpened her skills as a storyteller and filmmaker. “If I were to lock myself in a library for the rest of my life,” she explains, “I’d never be able to read every book—so I read people instead. I think the school of life is much better than anything.”

Watching actors behind a camera lens is not so different from viewing people from atop the lifeguard stand. Sara sees lifeguarding through the eyes of a filmmaker. Both involve serious diligence, to make sure that nothing is on the screen that is not supposed to be—or that people are not too far out in the ocean.

As a filmmaker viewing lifeguards depicted in film and television, she talked about Baywatch. “I think it brought lifeguarding to those who have never been to a beach, and heightened awareness. But I also feel it perpetuated stereotypes and fueled the wrong attitude toward lifeguards as sex symbols.”

It is true, though, that there is a certain amount of romanticism about lifeguards, illustrated the number of young ladies who “hang” by the lifeguard stands. In fact, for years the Beach Patrol held a Lifeguard Ball, a most popular event in Cape May. Today they hold a Lifeguard Social around the third week in August and award prizes like “Rookie of the Year” and the “Most Bronzed.” The Lifeguard Headquarters houses a “Hall of Fame” as well as lifeguard memorabilia.

One tradition that remains is the morning ritual of checking into each stand via radio. From stand to stand, a cheerful voice asks if all is well, often adding a personal remark to each lifeguard. This was started by Operations Director Glenn Ladd, who would tell each guard to “have a safe day and be careful out there.” His is also the voice heard from Convention Hall welcoming visitors to “Paradise.”

The Cape May Beach Patrol participates in numerous events like the USLA Mid-Atlantic, the Superathalon and sponsors other local events.

Bob Cwik, who is proud his son Damien is a lifeguard in Cape May in the summer and in Hawaii during the winter, goes on to say, “Year after year, the same people come to The Cove and say ‘you’re still here!’ I laugh, and say ‘Yes, I am’ with a smile.”

“I spend the winters in Hawaii, so I come back with an aloha spirit. I feel sad most of these folks have to go back to places like Philly and New York during summer’s blistering heat. So it’s important for me to be friendly and nice.”

And as a lifeguard at The Cove, he admits, “I have the best office in the world. How can I not be nice and friendly?”

Anyone who’s visited the Cove with its picturesque view of the Cape May Lighthouse and all of South Cape May beaches would certainly agree.