NORTH WILDWOOD — When Beach Patrol Chief Tony Cavalier went through his roll call of lifeguards before shifts started, he was shocked.
“I knew there was a lot. Then I counted them: 21 brothers and sisters,” Cavalier recalled as he stood on the front porch of the headquarters at 15th Avenue and the beach a recent Wednesday. “We’ve always had families. This is the most.”
This year, nearly one-third of North Wildwood’s patrol that has been keeping the beaches safe is made up of 21 siblings from nine families. For many of the lifeguards in South Jersey, keeping watch over the beaches has become a legacy job in families.
Although the number may have thrown Cavalier for a loop, he said lifeguard families are pretty common.
“There are a lot of kids (whose) parents worked here or their older brothers and sisters. It’s like that on a lot of beaches,” he said. “It’s good for the beach patrol because they have younger brothers and sisters and when they’re coming up they’ll want to be lifeguards.”
For the Coleman sisters, that’s exactly what happened.
Caitlyn Coleman, 21, and her 20-year-old sister, Sarah Coleman, both of Philadelphia, have been working for North Wildwood’s Beach Patrol for four years. Although their parents were never guards, their eldest brother is a lifeguard in Wildwood while their older sister is a guard at summer camp in Philadelphia.
“I thought it would a fun job, something different. I love being down at the shore,” Sarah said.
When their little sister Maura turned 16, they talked her into joining them on the beach in North Wildwood.
“They liked it so much so I decided I was going to try out too,” Maura said, who is now in her first year at as a guard.
But there was some sisterly wheedling into the choice.
“She kinda didn’t have a choice. We were like, ‘Come on Maura,’“ Caitlyn joked.
The three sisters often sit in the stand with one another, keeping an eye on beachgoers.
Some days, Sarah said they’ll fight “like normal,” like siblings are wont to do. Other days, they enjoying having inside jokes together.
“It’s like the best thing ever. I’m not even being sarcastic, it just flies by. We don’t even realize we’re like, ‘Oh, three hours went by. Did we even say anything?’” Caitlyn said. “You can be way weirder. (Maura) sang the national anthem for six hours straight, just on repeat, and it just didn’t even bother me.”
The sisters aren’t just keeping an eye on beachgoers — they look out for each other too.
The trio has been swimming for years, but that doesn’t stop Caitlyn and Sarah from being on high-alert when it comes to their little sister persuing a rescue, or when the ocean is rough. Sarah said she will worry about Maura even during workouts, when the seas are choppy.
Caitlyn also recalled a time when Maura and other lifeguards were working out in the water before their shift and she went to watch.
“A storm was coming in and I literally couldn’t even sit on my chair. I was like, ‘Oh my god, Maura, Maura, Maura,’ not even thinking there’s thirteen other bodies in there,” she said. “Well I did but, it’s my 16-year-old baby sister. It’s definitely nerve wracking.”
Mike and Matt Murray, 19 and 18 years old, respectively, of Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania said they aren’t worried for each other when they’re on the job. The brothers joked that must be a “little sister thing.”
“He’s fine,” Matt said.
The brothers joined the North Wildwood Beach after their eldest sister did.
“There were three of us here for a year and that was awesome,” said Mike, who has been on the patrol for four years while Matt has served for three.
While on the stand recently, Mike sent Matt out to grab two children on boogie boards before they were sucked out by a rip current. In the water, Mike said that there’s certain cues Matt does that he doesn’t have to think about like he would with another guard.