Barnegat Light — Editor’s Note: From July 17 through Aug. 21, Gina Scala and David Biggy explore the uniqueness, flair and prestige of each of the six beach patrols on Long Beach Island, and why visitors and residents can feel safe throughout the summer, in this six-week feature series, “Inside the Beach Patrols.”
On a recent Monday morning, the noise, people and cars that can overwhelm other areas of Long Beach Island in the summer seemed to fall completely away before the welcome sign to Barnegat Light came into view, leaving a feeling of time standing still. That was until voices resonated from the Barnegat Light Beach Patrol headquarters shortly before the start of the patrol’s daily 9:30 a.m. meeting.
Stepping inside the room was like walking in on a family’s morning routine. Family – it’s one of two words repeatedly used by members of the beach patrol. The other is team. Both words stem from the leadership of one man: Don Adams.
Still, Adams, who began lifeguarding in Ship Bottom in 1965 before moving to the Island’s northernmost beaches in 1975, is more comfortable focusing on the beach patrol as a whole and what everyone brings to the table.
“I’m an old dude. There are young kids coming in that have a better solution than I do (for how to handle things). You go with the best solution,” he said recently. “When I started, if you could swim you could be a lifeguard. To swim, you have to be smart. I think I have the smartest beach patrol (out there).”
There isn’t a member of the patrol, past or present, who doesn’t attribute its success to Adams, who had a hand in training/mentoring nearly every member, it seems. If he didn’t train them himself, his beliefs, methods and leadership skills were passed down from someone who was.
The candidates the Barnegat Light Beach Patrol looks for are individuals who are team players, have water skills, such as surfing and even some water polo players, are attentive with a sense of professionalism, and have a personality.
“You have to be a communicator on the beach,” John Schulze, who returned for his 29th season this summer, said, noting he has many long-lasting friendships from being a lifeguard. “What amounts to 10 weeks of life can drive” life beyond the beach.
For most of the Barnegat Light lifeguards, the feeling of family and belonging to a team began when they were lifeguard in training candidates.
“It’s a unique program,” said Andrew Baxter, who is back for his 13th summer as a Barnegat Light lifeguard. “Some kids go to camp. In the LIT, you’re getting an incredible, unique experience. When an 11-year-old kid can do an ocean rescue, that’s a confidence builder.” He added when he looks back on the last decade or so of his life, “This is one place that I continuously come back to; that’s family, the people you guard with.”
Schulze agreed, saying lifeguarding is a team sport unlike any other.
“When one shines, we all shine. When one hurts, we all hurt,” said Zak Westerberg, a race team captain and nine-year veteran of the beach patrol. “Family is what we do and how we do it. When you sit a stand (with someone) and protect a community, they become your sister/brother.”
The guard house, where some of the older guards, college students or teachers, even Adams and his wife on weekends, live adds to that sense of family.
“It’s a unique thing,” Adams said. “We’re different down here. When I first started, there were two girls guarding the bay. I gave them the test and gave them the ocean because they were as good as we are. I like to think we’re the first to have women on the ocean beaches. That’s the way we are in Barnegat Light.”
The current roster is made up of roughly 40 percent female guards, one of the highest percentages ever, Schulze said. They are equal, in every way, to the male guards, Adams said, acknowledging it didn’t used to be that way. It’s a feeling even the rookie guards experience.
For Ava Schumann, one of the most surprising things about her first season as a regular lifeguard after finishing the borough’s Lifeguard in Training program is “the warm welcome to a rookie. The best part is talking to someone new every day. You never know who you’re going to meet on the beach.”
Schulze, with almost three decades of lifeguarding experience, said he knows when he goes into the water (to make a rescue or to assist, “the others are right behind you.”
And for beach patrol Capt. Scott Caffery and others, some of those people are the children of former lifeguards he’s worked with over the years. Caffery’s two brothers used to guard in Barnegat Light, and his nephew is now a squad member.
The challenges. From environmental constraints (there’s a large piping plover population around the 22nd Street beach, which prevented truck use in the area until the eggs hatched. It takes about 30 days) to summer weather and changing beach conditions, the challenges facing the beach patrol are plenty. Still, for Westerberg the easiest part about being a lifeguard is his love for Barnegat Light beaches, which are among the roughest, if not the roughest, in the state, due to the inlet and the sand constantly shifting.
“You’re not going to find anything like it (elsewhere) on the Island,” Westerberg said.
While most beachgoers in Barnegat Light return annually, there are still some who aren’t familiar with the unique characteristics that come from the inlet and the quarter-mile trek from the access road to the water line.
“We’re always posting about conditions,” Schulze said. “We want the beachgoers to be thinking about the conditions. We’re focused on our jobs and evaluate everything we see. It took me a long time to understand that not everyone views conditions as I do.”
To mitigate some of those challenges, he’s learned to look at beachgoers as having no experience in the water.
“There’s the ocean, the current, the shore break,” Baxter said. “It’s a different environment.”
And there are other obstacles, including pay. Barnegat Light lifeguards are among the lowest paid, if not the lowest, in the state.
“There’s a misconception about what lifeguards do. Something that will never be shed is the idea of blond, beautiful and stay out all night,” Schulze said, noting that in reality, “it’s long days with not always a lot to do. You have to find ways to relate. You can’t just be a blow-up lifeguard.”
— Gina G. Scala