It's almost time for the rowing, swimming, running and paddleboarding to begin.
Lifeguard racing is a unique and exciting summer sport with a big tradition in South Jersey shore communities. The participating guards are usually top collegiate or high school athletes. Others are outstanding older guards who still know how to win.
The first event of the season is the Chief Bill Kuhn Brigantine Invitational at 6 p.m. Thursday at the 16th Street beach in Brigantine.
The rivalries between beach patrols make for exciting races, and fans from each city go to cheer for their teams. The crowds gather just a few feet from the water to watch the races.
The competitions help the lifeguards stay in peak condition for their more-important task of protecting beachgoers.
"It takes athletic skill to get to a distressed swimmer," said Bill Handley, the newly elected president of the South Jersey Lifeguard Chiefs Association. "All the patrols have a tradition to draw some of the best athletes. After the tryouts, they get the best of the best."
The Atlantic and Cape May County patrols race in most of the summer's top events, including the "Big Three" - the Dutch Hoffman Memorials, the Margate Beach Patrol World War II Memorials and the South Jersey Lifeguard Championships.
All competitions have unique characteristics. The Kuhn Brigantine Invitational has a relay-race format. The Cape May Beach Patrol Superathlon is a run-row-swim triathlon.
The Beschen-Callahan Memorials is held in honor of Jim Beschen and Mike Callahan, two North Wildwood lifeguards who were killed in the Vietnam War. The Upper Township M.S. Six-Mile Bay Row is a fundraiser for the fight against multiple sclerosis.
The Long Beach Island Lifeguard Tournament is a two-day championship. The South Jersey Lifeguard Pool Swimming Championships is an indoor meet with beach patrol swimmers. The David J. Kerr Memorials in Avalon gives a lot of guards from each team a chance to compete.
Perhaps the most unique of all is the John T. Goudy Memorial Rescue Races in Ventnor, where lifeguards row or swim out to flags in the ocean and bring 50-pound dummies back to shore in simulated rescues.
Several events are for female lifeguards only, including the Longport Women's Lifeguard Invitational, the Ocean City Beach Patrol Women's Invitational, the Cape May Point Women's Lifeguard Challenge (a swim-paddleboard-run triathlon) and the Cape Atlantic Women's Lifeguard Invitational.
"Lifeguard racing is great for the spectators, the families of the guards and the alumni," said Handley, who is in his 25th year as the captain of the Upper Township Beach Patrol.
"All the patrols have a large number of fans. I've talked to the South Jersey Chiefs, and I can tell their teams will be competitive. They're happy with the new guards they have, and there (are) always some guards who come year after year who are skilled at competing."
Summer schedule starts Thursday