WILDWOOD CREST — Julianna Roche vividly remembers her first lifeguard rescue.
It was last year, and three people were drowning in the ocean. Roche blew her whistle and communicated on radio that she was going in the water.
A short time later, with the assist of other guards, the three people were saved.
Being a lifeguard on the beach can be a dangerous job because of rip currents, rough waves, and panicked swimmers who may drown you to keep themselves up.
For Roche and her fellow lifeguards in the Crest, dealing with those challenges isn’t nerve-wracking — it’s exhilarating, and it’s something they are well prepared for through their training.
“We go through such rigorous training … they teach you every possible scenario that could happen,” said Roche, a 2018 graduate of Wildwood Catholic High School. “So much of this job is confidence. You don’t have time to be nervous.”
Because the Wildwood Crest Beach Patrol requires even veteran lifeguards to requalify every year, Roche began training in January for her job this summer.
On Tuesday, Roche, a second-year patrol member, set up the lifeguard stand and helped mentor two rookies. The rookies will become full guards later this summer.
The surf was rough, but there was no sign of a thunderstorm. Roche said the beach is guarded unless there is lightning.
When lightning strikes, the guards call the people out of the water and warn everyone the ocean will not be guarded until the storm passes.
“We tell them that we won’t be here and it is unsafe, but we can’t force anyone to stay out of the water,” she said. “We hang out at the headquarters (until the thunderstorm passes).”
The process of setting up and guarding the beach in Wildwood Crest has been the same for decades. In many cases, the job of protecting swimmers has been passed down through generations of family members who have served on the beach patrol.
Jonathan Feraco, a Wildwood Crest native in his third year guarding the beach, is the fifth person in his family to be on the beach patrol.
He said he looked at other summer jobs before becoming a lifeguard, but couldn’t stray from the family tradition.
“I was skeptical about becoming a lifeguard. ... I wanted to go into the busing business because there’s more money,” Feraco said. “But there were four other Feracos before me that were on the patrol, and I had to carry on the legacy.”
Feraco added he is glad he joined and loves the job, which is why he comes back every summer.
Maddy Love, a Wilmington, Delaware, native and three-year patrol veteran, joined because of her older sister and cousins.
“They lived down here and they all enjoyed it,” Love said. “And now I really enjoy it.”
The patrol has been led by the same man for the last 44 years: Bud Johnson.
Every morning before going on duty, lifeguards participate in training that could include running, swimming, rowing, paddling or reviews of first aid and CPR, Johnson said.
At 9:45 a.m., Johnson starts the roll call of all the guards. In total, there are 86 employees at the patrol, 18 of whom are women. Johnson said he is proud of that because the number of women on the staff continues to grow.
Before leaving for the beach, the lifeguards do a breakdown like football players breaking from the huddle. On Tuesday, it was two claps and a “Ric Flair.”
Clap-clap“Wooo!” the lifeguards yelled before exiting the headquarters on Rambler Avenue.
Down on the beach, the priority becomes watching the ocean, especially if the water is filled with rip currents.
“To the trained eye, the rip current stands out like a sore thumb,” said Ronnie Ayers, a 15-year veteran — though this is his first year back since 2008.
“Saving people from rip currents are the most common saves, especially if they’re on boogie boards and don’t realize they are getting pulled out.”
On average, the lifeguards don’t let people go out beyond their chest. On days when the surf is rough, like Tuesday, that could be reduced to just the swimmer’s waist.
If there is an emergency, the lifeguards use whistles and radios to communicate. The radio is connected to all the other lifeguards and the patrol headquarters. The headquarters is connected to the police station, just in case of a major emergency.
At the end of the day, at 5 p.m., the lifeguards whistle for everyone to get out of the ocean. Then they drag the lifeguard stands — some made of wood, others aluminum — up the beach and away from the surf.
The next morning and every morning after until the season ends in September, the process is repeated.
“I grew up around lifeguards and I always thought they were the coolest people ... they’re like superheroes,” Roche said. “I’m so glad to be a part of this every summer.”