It's another cold morning in February, cold enough for ice to line parts of the banks on the bay under the big bridge for Sea Isle City.
But the wind isn't too bad, so there's something else showing up on the bay on this weekend day - rowboats. Or lifeboats, actually, a small flotilla whose owners take them out just about every Saturday and Sunday morning of the year, even in these months when they sometimes have to break a bit of ice to get to clear water.
Joe LaRosa, of Upper Township, is a regular in this crowd of "rusty-zipper lifeguards," as he calls himself and his rowing buddies - even though he acknowledges that "isn't a real positive phrase."
Whatever you call them, these crews are made up of almost all former beach lifeguards in towns along the Cape May County coast - although a few still break out their whistles again on busy weekends in the summer. But even though most of these winter rowers are finished with the lifeguarding life, they aren't over the fun and workouts that come with rowing the boats all local beach patrols use.
And some of them are much more serious - or less rusty - about their rowing than others.
Take Wayne MacMurray, one of the few people in this group who's still a summer guard. He works weekends and is a "very unofficial" rowing coach for his local Upper Township Beach Patrol, in Strathmere, but he also has rowed in the United States Lifesaving Association's national competitions - and won the surf boat race in his 55- to 59-year-old age group the past two years.
In 2012, MacMurray won the nationals in Cape May with Bill Kindle, his regular winter rowing buddy in Sea Isle - and for 6 a.m. rows in Stone Harbor at warmer times of the year, when the sun also rises earlier. But last summer, when Kindle couldn't get to the USLA nationals in Manhattan Beach, Calif., MacMurray won their age group, again - rowing with a friend of a friend, a guard from Florida he'd never met before.
Somewhere near the other extreme of seriousness would be LaRosa, a principal for Dennis Township's schools, and his wife, Barbara. Both enjoy rowing and neither one minds admitting they can use the exercise they get from these 8 a.m. workouts, which usually run about 5 or 6 miles, depending on the day's winds and ice and other conditions.
"But it's not like we're going to win races or anything - we're both 60 years old," Joe says. "We go out, we row hard, and we both break a sweat."
All the winter rowers enjoy the exercise, and they'd like to say that's really what brings them out there on these cold mornings - when about the only thing that keeps them off the water is high winds, worse than 15 mph or so. But deep down, some of them have to admit the chance to break that sweat with some quality competition also gets their juices flowing.
"It's never a race," as MacMurray says, speaking through a smile, "but it's always a race."
Joe LaRosa says he enjoys seeing that competition break out - and he usually has a good view of it, from well behind.
"They do race, and it's funny to watch," says LaRosa, who grew up in Sea Isle, but worked on the Wildwood Beach Patrol and still guards a few days a summer in Strathmere. But he had pretty much given up on rowing for years, until he and his wife - who learned to row crew-style boats at the Brigantine Rowing Club - decided to become lifeboat partners too, about eight years ago.
"Wayne (MacMurray) and Bill Kindle and Jimmy Gibbons and Kevin Larkin are in really good shape, and they go at it," Joe LaRosa added, naming a few more of the winter regulars.
Gibbons spent about 30 years lifeguarding in three towns, and now takes one of the longer rides to get to Sea Isle on cold mornings - he lives in Ventnor. But he works in Philadelphia as a steamfitter, and he likes his lifeboat workouts so much that in the summer, he drives 90 or so minutes (in friendly traffic) from a day of work down to Sea Isle to meet up with his boat buddy, Larkin, and head out for an evening row.
Bill Millar, also of Upper Township, met some of his cold-water cronies at the Brigantine Rowing Club, where he used to go on winter mornings to get his miles in without moving, on the line of indoor rowing machines. Millar never actually was a lifeguard - his father banned it because "it wasn't a real job," Millar says now, although his dad relented by the time his five younger sons were old enough to make money doing it.
But now, at 57, Millar still actively rows in masters-age, crew-style races, and he says these winter mornings in lifeboats are good cross-training for the competition he really enjoys.
"I prefer the sculling .... (but) I decided to row with these guys in lieu of getting on the rowing machine," he explains. "I don't care how cold it is outside, it's better than a rowing machine."
He adds that the lifeboats are "a good workout, but in the guard boats, you don't use the legs as much" as he does in his scull. "Some people will probably say it's not such good cross-training. ... Rowing the guard boats is much harder on your body. It can really wear on you."
Millar adds that not everyone in his life agrees that going out rowing on icy mornings is such a smart move.
"My wife thinks we're going out to a bar somewhere," he says. "She doesn't believe we're really going rowing on these cold Sunday mornings."
But they are, and they have more workout buddies - or fellow competitors - than the ones mentioned here. The rest of the weekend fleet usually includes several McCann brothers, from a family with deep roots in Sea Isle: McCanns started building houses in the town in 1882, and selling them through their own real-estate agency in 1939, as Joe McCann, 66, traced the history after another weekend workout on the water.
McCann figures he started rowing in 1964, which makes this his 50th year with oars in his hands. He lives by the bay in Sea Isle and the later sunsets these days have already started letting him row almost every day after work. His brother, John, from Ocean City, rows five days a week, McCann says; and their brothers, Chris and Tom, also go to Sea Isle as often as possible on weekends to row - even though they have a long drive from the Philadelphia area to get there.
Three generations of McCanns have been lifeguards everywhere from Wildwood to Margate, adds McCann, who, at 66, is one of the senior members of the weekend-morning crew.
"Most of those guys were my mascots," he says, figuring he's known them even longer than he's been rowing.
And as much as these old guards enjoy the exercise, and compete when the urge is there, they have one more major reason for getting up in the dark and getting together and getting out on the bay with the rest of their more-or-less-rusty zipper buddies.
"It's a friendship," as MacMurray sums it up. "We grew up together. We worked on the beach together. And now we row together."
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