The lifeguard racing season, always a summertime favorite along the Jersey Shore, is less than one week away.
The beach patrol competition schedule is nearly complete from Cape May Point to Long Beach Island, and a full summer of rowing, swimming, paddleboarding, surf-dashing and distance running will be held.
The season begins at 6:30 p.m. next Friday, July 5, with the 30th annual Cape May County Lifeguard Championships at Rambler Road beach in Wildwood Crest. The 10 county beach patrols from Cape May Point to Ocean City will compete.
The five Atlantic County Patrols start July 8 at the 49th annual Chief Bill Kuhn Brigantine Invitational Races at the 16th Street beach in Brigantine.
LBI gets its start July 11 as the Surf City Epic Lifeguard Tournament celebrates its 10th anniversary at the 5th Street beach in Surf City.
"Lifeguard racing helps the guards stay in shape for their job of rescuing people," said Renny Steele, the president of the South Jersey Lifeguard Chiefs Association. "Having races also helps in recruiting top athletes to be lifeguards. Athletes in colleges want to keep in shape during the summer for their particular sport."
Steele is also the chief of the Sea Isle City Beach Patrol.
"When I started with Sea Isle in 1968, there were basically four races (in the South Jersey Association season), and now there's an event almost every night after work," Steele said. "We have many women's races now, and some with men and women."
Counting the South Jersey Lifeguard Chiefs Association and LBI, there are 32 events this summer, plus three others out of state that could involve area athletes.
"There are so many events now that there's not much room for anything new," Steele said. "Some of the races have been moved up a week or back a week. The trend seems to be for colleges to go back early, so a lot of events have been jammed into July and early August."
The Cape May County Championships shows off the variety of beach patrol racing, with a doubles row, a paddleboard race, a swim, a run-swim, a singles row and a surf dash.
"We set our event back a half-hour to 6:30 to give everybody a chance to get there on the Fourth of July weekend," Wildwood Crest Beach Patrol Chief Bud Johnson said. "Our races are spectator friendly, a little shorter than the ones late in the summer.
"We've tweaked a few little things in the 30 years of our event, but the races are essentially the same, and the order is the same. It works out well. With the kinds of races we have, a lot of athletes can get involved."
The events considered the "Big Three" of South Jersey are the Dutch Hoffman Memorials on July 26 in Wildwood, the Margate Beach Patrol World War II Memorials on Aug. 2, and the South Jersey Lifeguard Championships on Aug. 9 in Margate.
The two-day Long Beach Island Lifeguard Tournament, LBI's top event, is set for Aug. 2-3 in Ship Bottom.
The Margate Beach Patrol won the South Jersey Lifeguard Championship on Aug. 12 last year in Ocean City as Chuck Gowdy won the singles row to clinch it. The other winners were the Venntor doubles crew of David Funk and Mike Tripician, and swimmer Sean Regan of North Wildwood.
Counting singles and doubles rowing championships, Gowdy and Funk are tied for the all-time lead in South Jersey titles with eight apiece. Margate rower Ashton Funk, David's brother, has seven.
Tripician retired from competition after last year, and David Funk may stick with singles rowing this year.
"Ventnor has a lot of young, strong athletes, and it may be an opportunity for other guards to row doubles," said Funk, 35, a Ventnor Beach Patrol lieutenant. "The fire is still there for racing, but I might focus on singles and not double up."
The Upper Township Beach Patrol has added a 5K Run to its annual Kayak Festival on Aug. 10.
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