CAPE MAY — The Cape May Beach Patrol has a streak that has lasted for over a century.
Since its inception in 1911, the city’s lifeguards have never had a drowning on a guarded beach.
Their offseason preparations and training are geared toward making sure it stays that way for at least another year.
“We take a lot of pride in that,” Beach Patrol Capt. Geoff Rife said. “The crux of why we’re all here is to maintain that safety record. If something were ever to happen to end it, it would be devastating to everyone from the lowliest rookie to Chief (Harry ‘Buzz’ Mogck).”
The Beach Patrol’s 108th year will officially start Friday, when Cape May will open 11 of its 25 beaches for Memorial Day weekend.
The patrol has been preparing for the weekend for the past month by refurbishing lifeguard stands, boats and paddleboards at its garage.
A recent morning found 10-year veteran Jerry Valentine sanding and painting boats while third-year lifeguard Cameron Blivens and others tended to some rescue boards.
Lt. Terry Randolph, who is starting his 39th year, patrolled the mostly vacant beaches in a truck, just in case someone decided to test the water.
The Beach Patrol will have 17 to 18 boats on the beaches this summer along with 30 rescue boards. In addition, a Carolina Skiff motorboat patrols up and down the coastline from the Cove to Poverty Beach. A personal watercraft used for routine patrols and emergencies is stationed at Beach Patrol headquarters on Cannone Beach.
A truck and Polaris all-terrain vehicle patrol the beach.
“Things have changed quite a bit since I started on the Beach Patrol in 1985,” said Rife, 53, who was a standout swimmer at the University of Pittsburgh. “But the Van Duyne (boats) still serve a useful purpose. Being out on the water gives you a different perspective than sitting on a stand.”
Guarding a beach in Cape May has become much more challenging over the past 20 years or so. A beach replenishment project made the beachfront much bigger — there are 25 beaches now as opposed to 15 before the project — but also created a severe slope at the water’s edge. Waves now break in knee-deep water, which increases the risk of neck and back injuries for those who fail to heed the warning signs posted at the entrances.
Bodysurfing and riding a boogie board are discouraged. Even standing in the water during rough conditions poses a potential danger.
“The job has changed a lot over the years in terms of technology and the amount of training that’s required,” said Randolph, 55, who was one of South Jersey’s top rowers. “We’ve seen an increase in spinal and neck injuries caused by the slopes. Years ago, the energy of the waves would be diffused by the jetties, and now that energy just explodes when the waves hit.”
Randolph and the other five lieutenants on the patrol are certified emergency medical technicians.
CPR and rescue breathing are among the requirements for lifeguards, as well as the physical tests that must be passed. Veteran guards must complete a 500-meter swim in less than 10 minutes and a half-mile run in three minutes, 45 seconds.
Potential newcomers take part in tryouts this year on June 8. Those who are selected will undergo an intensive rookie school from June 17-21 in which they will learn rescue techniques. No rookies will be permitted on the beach until June 22.
Finding qualified lifeguards has become an increasing problem, as with other patrols in South Jersey this year, Cape May is expected to have 12 to 15 openings on its 90-person crew.
“There’s two reasons for that,” Rife said. “Kids who do not live here full time have a lot of trouble finding affordable places to stay for the summer. We also lose some college kids who are required to do internships as juniors and seniors.”
Those who guard Cape May’s beaches this summer will be thoroughly qualified and focused on one goal: to keep that streak alive for one more year.
“At the end of each year, we do hold a little celebration amongst ourselves,” Randolph said. “But during the year, we don’t talk about the streak because we don’t want to jinx it. Personally, I just try every day to make sure everyone is safe, while also realizing that some of it is in God’s hands.”