The guesswork is over in South Jersey beach patrol racing because it's time for the Atlantic City Lifeguard Classic.
The 23rd annual event begins at 6:30 p.m. today at the Albany Avenue beach in Atlantic City.
The A.C. Classic is unique in many ways, primarily because it's the first meeting of the summer that is open to the five Atlantic County beach patrols and the 10 from Cape May County. Both counties have had outstanding performances so far, but until the Classic, it's all conjecture about which patrol is the best so far this season.
Fourteen of the beach patrols in the South Jersey Lifeguard Chiefs Assoc-iation will compete. Cape May Point will not be there.
"Since we're the first meeting of all the patrols, our event gives a preview of what to expect in the later races this season," Atlantic City Beach Patrol Chief Rod Aluise said. "It's developed into a community event, a reunion where a lot of the old lifeguards come back. So many people compliment us on it. There are four large competitions during the summer, and it has earned a spot to be part of the 'Big Four.' "
Followers of South Jersey lifeguard racing consider the Dutch Hoffman Memorials, the Margate World War II Memorials and the South Jersey Lifeguard Champion-ships to be the "Big Three." But the Classic is on a par with the other events, except that they're older.
Tonight's events will be the 600-meter paddleboard race, the mile doubles row, the half-mile swim, and the 1,000-foot singles row. With an ocean playing field, those distances are approximations.
Margate got a win by Chuck Gowdy in the singles row last year and won the team title with 13 points. Avalon, the 2011 winner, was second with 12 points. Gowdy is back in the singles and will also row doubles with Ashton Funk. Margate's Pat Flynn got fourth in the swim in 2012 and he's ready to go today.
"Avalon had a really strong team last year, and it was great to get the win," Margate Beach Patrol captain Mike Cincotta said. "The Atlantic City patrol always puts on a great race. We have a strong team, and a lot of the others do too. Several teams have a chance to win, and that's what makes it fun."
The paddleboard race has a box course in the ocean, and a 200-meter beach run to the finish line at the end of the paddling.
"It's a highly competitive race," Aluise said. "The paddleboarders are hungry and aggressive, and it's a fast race. The paddlers in our area are getting much better. It's a great race from start to finish, and the spectators can see it all."
Atlantic City's Carson Rau won the paddleboard last year, and he's set to go again. Ocean City rookie lifeguard Brian Pasternak, who won the Cape May County Lifeguard Cham-pionships paddleboard this summer, should challenge. Brigantine veteran Sven Peltonen, Longport's Tim Schwegman, Sea Isle City's Jeff Buyse, and Wildwood's Bryan Byles could all be near the front.
Avalon's Erich Wolf and Craig Whitehead took the doubles row last year, and they also return. Wolf won the Classic singles row in 2011 and was second to Gowdy by four seconds last year.
"We're looking forward to it," said Avalon Beach Patrol captain Murray Wolf, Erich's father. "We're hoping to get some points in the swim and paddleboard. It's going to be a tough race, and it's always exciting."
Wolf and Whitehead won the County and Beschen-Callahan Memorials doubles, and Funk and Gowdy won the Captain Michael D. Mc-Grath Longport Memorials. The field includes Tom Kresz and Schwegman of Longport, Vince Sera and Rob Canavan of Brigantine, Dylan Kosten and Matt Garbutt of Ocean City, Tri-Resort winners Jon O'Neil and Dan Palombo of Upper Township, and Jim Smith and Vince Granese of Atlantic City. Wildwood Crest's Brendan Cunning-ham and Terry McGovern were second in the County race.
The swim has two en-trants from each patrol. Brigantine rookie Shane McKenzie, a rising sophomore at the University of Notre Dame, won the McGrath Longport Memor-ials, and Flynn was 11 seconds behind. Upper Town-ship's 16-year-old Kevin Gill won the Beschen-Callahan and Tri-Resort races, and Wildwood Crest's Steve Tarnowski was first in the County event.
The singles row will include Ventnor's David Funk, Longport's Sean Duffey, Upper's Joe O'Neil (Jon's brother), Sea Isle City's Pat Scannapieco, A.C.'s Mike Santangelo, and Stone Harbor's Zac Campbell.
Contact Guy Gargan: