The South Jersey lifeguard racing season begins today, just two days after the Fourth of July in the busiest week of the summer season.
The 29th annual Cape May County Lifeguard Championships will be at 6 p.m. at Rambler Road beach in Wildwood Crest. The 41st annual Captain Michael D. McGrath Longport Memorial Lifeguard Races will begin at 6:30 p.m. at 33rd Avenue beach in Longport.
"It's a challenge (to prepare for the races) since there are more people here," said Wildwood Crest Beach Patrol chief Bud Johnson. "We like being the first race. There's extra pressure, but there's also extra excitement."
Johnson oversees the setup routine for the 10-team Cape May County event, which has six races. Preparations begin in May with getting funds through sponsorships from local businesses.
The Wildwood Crest patrol does a lot of work behind the scenes to ensure that the event is run correctly. Johnson, in his 47th year with the patrol, has an administrative staff of 12 senior guards, all of whom have at least 25 years of experience.
There's plenty of work to be done, such as getting trophies, and setting up meetings and the race courses. Five of the six races at the Cape May County event have separate courses. Each of the 10 lanes has two judges, and the Crest senior lieutenants are the overall judges. Finally, there's Pat Johnson, Bud's wife, who is the statistician and computer processor.
"One thing I still literally do is draw the compass line for the singles and doubles flags to make sure the courses are the same for everyone," Bud said. "Most of the feedback we get from the competitors is that they like to be here. We put on a good, fair race. Our patrol has only won this event twice."
Lifeguard racing is fun and exciting, but there's another reason patrols go through so much trouble to hold them. They keep the guards in great shape for beach rescue.
"Racing is the little bit of reward that they get for staying fit," Johnson said. "We stress staying in shape. If you're fit, you'll do a better job mentally and physically. Everyone knows beach safety is the most important thing."
Ocean City won the county team title for the 13th time in 28 years in 2011 with a victory in the final race, the surf dash.
"Bud Johnson really knows how to run a race," said Jeff Garbutt, an O.C. Beach Patrol senior lieutenant and coach. "They always have a good show at Wildwood Crest. It should be a big crowd and our guys are excited about that. There's a lot that goes into in, and Wildwood Crest has had a lot of practice with all the years they've held it."
The McGrath Longport Memorials, an event for the five Atlantic County patrols, has the mile doubles row, the half-mile swim and the 1,000-foot singles row. Those distances are approximations.
The event honors the late McGrath, the Longport patrol's former co-captain and longtime rowing champion.
"You never know what will happen at our event," said Dan Adams, the Longport Beach Patrol chief. "We're looking to have a good race and a good start to the season. It should be fun."
Ventnor won the team title at Longport last year, and is led by 2011 doubles winners David Funk and Mike Tripician. Also back are Ashton Funk and Chuck Gowdy of Margate, second in that race. Longport's Bobby Ballance won the swim last year, and he's also back. Atlantic City's Justin Rau and Longport's Victor Giannini, second and third in the swim last year, respectively, also return. Ashton Funk the singles champion a year ago, is back along with brother David, and Brigantine's John Dattalo.
The big news at the Cape May County event is that Crest's John Maloy and Avalon's Shane McGrath didn't return to the beach this year. Maloy won the swim and the run-swim back-to-back on his home beach last year, and McGrath teamed with Craig Whitehead to win the doubles row.
Returning champions include Sea Isle City's Jeff Buyse in the rescue board race, and Avalon's Erich Wolf in the singles row. The 2011 O.C. surf dash team, Dylan Kosten, brother Ian Kosten, Dan Casey and Tony Mehalic, returns intact.
Other athletes to watch are Stone Harbor rower Darrick Kobierowski, swimmer Blake Trabuchi-Downey of Sea Isle, O.C. rower Matt Garbutt, Upper Township oarsman/dasher Pat Curran, and Stone Harbor run-swimmer Tim Hayes.