Temperatures were low, wind was blowing and winter seemed as if it would never end. But last month, a lifeguard stand appeared in front of Ventnor City Hall — a sign of normalcy.
“We always put out a stand when we put the (beach) badges on sale,” said Ventnor City Beach Patrol Capt. Bill Howarth. “A lot of people told me that every year, they feel good when they see the stand out there. It lets them know summer is coming.”
Getting beach patrols ready for summer begins long before visitors and second homeowners arrive for Memorial Day. This year, however, Hurricane Sandy and several other storms left many beach patrols dealing with damaged equipment and structures.
In Ventnor, the Beach Patrol equipment held up better than expected, Howarth said — although the storm took a shed that housed smaller equipment and washed it out to sea, eventually throwing it up against the Ventnor Pier.
“Everything in there we thought would be destroyed,” Howarth said. “And, wow, it wasn’t. (And this shed) got pretty mangled.”
The impact from the June “derecho” storm actually has led to the most reconstruction work this spring. Ventnor’s patrol lost all of its lifeguard stands in that storm, with one washing up as far away as Long Beach Island. After making do with plywood atop drum barrels and loaners from Longport, the city eventually built 11 stands to get through the summer.
“But one of them got wrecked again before the end of the year,” Howarth said. “So we’ve got to build three new structures so we’ll have a couple extra. Hopefully, the wild winds won’t come up again.”
Other towns, meanwhile, have a bit more work to do after Sandy.
Ocean City sustained major damage to sheds that store personal watercraft and equipment, Fire and Beach Patrol Chief Chris Breunig said — though most equipment made it through — and Brigantine saw its 17 sheds severely damaged, with six “a total loss,” Public Works Director Ernie Purdy said.
The storage yard in Brigantine also got hit hard, forcing the patrol to rebuild about 15 stands.
Long Beach Township Beach Patrol headquarters — right on Barnegat Bay — got 42 inches of water, Chief Dan Myers said, forcing the patrol to spread out equipment to six other facilities.
Sea Isle City got 8 inches of sand in its headquarters after Sandy, Beach Patrol Chief Renny Steele said, but a crew of 15 was on hand the next day to clean up.
“It’s in good shape now,” Steele said. Lower cabinets were flooded, wiping out some medical supplies that had to be reordered, “but we were pretty lucky. We didn’t lose any vehicles or anything like that.”
In Atlantic City, the boats are being brought over and inspected for wear and tear — mainly from the derecho — and any boats that need work are stripped and rebuilt “all the way up,” Chief Rod Aluise said. All the lines on rescue buoys and torpedoes are also being replaced, along with any worn-out stands.
And then: The guards return.
In Ventnor, Howarth said, much of the early spring order of business is paperwork — contacting all the guards, seeing who is coming back, getting the master list ready of the 62 to 64 guards.
“We have the test every year,” Howarth said. “I’m in my 45th year, and I can’t remember not having the test. An average year, six to seven people don’t come back, and there are six to seven new people.”
In Atlantic City, “All lifeguards re-apply every year,” Aluise said. “All lifeguards are scheduled for a physical examination, including swimming and running.”
Ocean City, which will employ about 160 guards, usually sees about 130 return every year, Breunig said. The remaining spots will be filled in open tryouts.
And in Long Beach Township, “Even right now as we speak, a class of guards is doing certifications for CPR,” Myers said. “We’ve been literally getting ready since Presidents Day weekend.”
Myers said 500 people will be hired this summer to staff 52 ocean beaches and two bay beaches.
“I’m optimistic,” Myers said. “There’s no reason not to be.”
Beach conditions also vary widely, chiefs and officials said.
Sea Isle City lost a lot of sand in the 60s and 70s street blocks, Steele said, though the biggest hit was on sand dunes.
North Wildwood, which usually has a great expanse of beach, lost some sand following the hurricane, Mayor William Henfey said. Brigantine’s Purdy said that while replenishment during the winter helped fill out hard-hit beaches, a great deal of debris from storms remains.
Visitors to Ventnor, meanwhile, will again see sand-replenishment pipes on the beach in May, as part of an emergency replenishment after Sandy.
Then there’s the other annual beach work force: the badge checkers.
“We’re going to hire more checkers this year,” Howarth said. “We’re trying to figure out ways of increasing revenue. We had 14 to 15 checkers last year. This year, we may go up to 20 to 23. And we’ll raise the salaries a little bit so maybe we’ll attract some older kids to the job. Usually we get 15- to 16-year-olds. We want to see some 17- to 18-year-olds.”
Memorial Day weekend is the target goal for most patrols, with full-time guards at every beach usually by the middle of June or the Fourth of July. Howarth, for one, can’t wait.
“You know what?” Howarth asked. “I love this job. I’ve been here 45 years, starting up as a lifeguard in 1969. Chief Stan Bergman has been here since 1958. Both of us really enjoy it. ... It’s beautiful out here in the summer: June, July and August. It keeps me young.”
Howarth looked over at his 5-year-old grandson, Jake Karp, gazing out over the beach to Atlantic City through his binoculars.
“And in another 10 years or so,” Howarth said, “he’ll take the test.”
Contact Steven Lemongello:
Follow @SteveLemongello on Twitter