If you’re not too busy Friday night, do yourself a favor and head over to Longport for the 80th South Jersey Lifeguard Championships.
With the exception of the Atlantic County Baseball League, which is wrapping up its 134th season — league president and Margate Hurricanes manager Yogi Hiltner was a rookie when it started — with the Margate Hurricanes facing the Northfield Cardinals, no other local sports event is as steeped in tradition.
Nothing matches the unique atmosphere of the races. Hundreds, if not thousands, of tanned fans kick off their shoes and head to the water’s edge to see if their favorite rowers and swimmers from each of the 15 beach patrols in the South Jersey Lifeguard Chiefs Association can unseat Longport and take that team trophy back to their beach.
It’s time for the event to be updated, however.
The South Jerseys feature just three races: the doubles row, swim and singles row, in that order. That’s been the case for the last 46 years, since the governing body added the singles row in 1973.
Meanwhile, lifeguard racing has evolved. Virtually every other event, even the 50-year-old Dutch Hoffman Memorials, which is the first leg of the traditional “Big Three” with the Margate Memorials and South Jerseys, includes a paddleboard/rescue board race.
This year’s Dutch Hoffman rescue board race was as exciting as it gets. Ocean City’s Bryan Theiss was among a pack of five racers paddling furiously toward the beach. Two other competitors stood up in the thigh-high water and began sprinting toward the finish line, only to fall face-first about 5 yards away after stepping in a gully.
Theiss, 41, who had scouted out the course beforehand, stayed upright and earned the victory.
“They definitely should add a paddleboard race to the South Jerseys,” said Theiss, who is also an outstanding rower. “I agree 1,000%. We’re all aware of the heritage and history of that event, and I’m not saying they should eliminate anything. But what’s wrong with adding another, more modern, lifesaving skill?”
Rowing is the staple of lifeguard racing in the southern part of the state. The South Jersey Championships began with a doubles row in 1924, which was won by Atlantic City’s Harry Yates and Jack Woodworth.
In Long Beach Island and points north, however, paddleboard racing is the dominant event.
“Our races tend to focus more on paddleboards while they use boats down here,” Harvey Cedars Beach Patrol competitor Jenna Parker said.
Paddleboarding’s potential was on display Monday night at the fifth annual South Jersey Rescue Board Championships in Brigantine.
The event featured six races, including two individual races apiece for men and women and two coed relays. The format allowed top racers such as Parker, Wildwood Crest’s Adrienne Bilello, Ocean City’s Brian Pasternak, Theiss and Harvey Cedars legend Randy Townsend to showcase their strength, speed and endurance.
And because the events were staged relatively close to shore, spectators had a great vantage point.
From a spectator’s point of view, the doubles row is kind of boring. The start of the race is cool, especially if crews have to climb large swells at the start and avoid collisions with other boats at the end. But in between, fans without binoculars have to rely on race officials to provide updates.
That is also the case with the swim, which was first held in the South Jerseys in 1945. It quickly develops into squinting as bobbing swim caps and windmilling arms heading toward a buoy.
By the way, there will be no suspense in Friday’s swim. Defending champion Joey Tepper of Longport has dominated this season and likely will be toweling off and chatting with friends by the time the rest of the swimmers finish.
Like Theiss and Pasternak, who is also in favor of adding paddleboarding to the South Jerseys, I’m all for maintaining the tradition of rowing and swimming.
But there would be nothing wrong with adding paddleboarding and perhaps a four-person surf dash to the event.
And in another 20 years, maybe they could also include some women’s races.
David Weinberg’s Extra Points column appears Wednesdays and Sundays in The Press.