August 06, 2009

The Jersey (and Delaware) Boys of Summer

I just spent a few days driving up the mid-Atlantic shore from Assateague Island, Maryland to Atlantic City, New Jersey, following the coastal road -- bits of US 1 and other oceanside stretches with names like Coastal Highway, Ocean Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue. I cut some driving miles out of the trip by taking a ferry across Delaware Bay from Lewes, Delaware to Cape May, New Jersey.

I stopped at as many beaches as I could stand on my way north and invariably found fit, attentive lifeguards scanning the water for wayward swimmers.

A lifeguard's job may look easy -- sitting in the sun on a beautiful beach, girls, bikinis, tanned muscles -- but when a rescue situation arises, these people deliver the goods.

In every town I visited, from the gorgeous Delaware resorts of Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach to New Jersey's Stone Harbor, Avalon and the Wildwoods, next to most of the lifeguard stations sat large, wooden rowboats with the town's name painted in capital letters on the sides. The boats -- lifeboats -- sat on wheels so the guards could maneuver them quickly into the water in an emergency.

The boats I saw sat picturesque and quiet. Until Atlantic City.

As I stood on the Atlantic City boardwalk I watched two pairs of lifeguards jump from their stations and launch two lifeboats into the roaring, riptide-ribboned surf. Two kids were in peril in six-foot-high waves a hundred yards farther out than anyone else. One hung to a plastic float and one was all alone in the sea. The gigantic waves crashed onto them and tossed them like toys.

The four guards rowed those boats against the crushing, heaving sea -- they were catapulted nearly vertical a half-dozen times, and I don't know why they didn't fall out into the ocean -- and reached the kids. They pulled one into one of the boats but couldn't get either boat close enough to the other kid because of the violent surf and the riptide that took their vigorous rowing effort and spit it out in a direction that put them farther away with each pull of the oars.

The guards in the boat that had scooped the first kid threw an orange life ring on a rope to the boy still in the water, who somehow found the will and energy to push through the sea, grab hold and latch on. He was pulled to shore behind the lifeboat, his friend shivering and shaking in the bow.

Lifeguard at an ocean beach resort. Nice gig.

Until someone's drowning. Then you kick it in and do what few people can -- go into the water and save a life. Or two. And hopefully come out with your own.