New Jersey puts up with a lot. Once past the obligatory deification of Bruce Springsteen, Asbury Park's gift to the world, there's little else besides jokes about the malodorous oil refineries and swamps in north Jersey, the moldering undiscovered remains of Jimmy Hoffa at Giants Stadium and the sun-deprived, rheumy-eyed casino pilgrims in Atlantic City. Garden State indeed! � But most natives, and a large number of tourists who would never consider yanking a slot-machine lever, know different. In the summer months New Jersey is all about white sand and wild surf, covering more than 100 miles of continuous beach that stretches from Sandy Hook in the north to Cape May at the southern tip. "We have the best beaches anywhere," says Warren Brown, a 54-year-old Atlantic City lifeguard who has been, as the guards put it, "on the beach" since he was 16. "If people don't believe it, that's their loss." Spoken with true Joisy 'tude.
So it was no surprise last week that the Springsteen State, not California or Florida, was the place to see suntanned, Speedo-clad dudes and dudettes engaged in water sports for whistle-blowers. Last Thursday through Saturday more than 750 competitors from all over the country descended on Cape May for the National Lifeguard Championships (sponsored by the U.S. Lifesaving Association, or USLA), a potpourri of 14 events that drew an estimated 30,000 fans. And last Friday evening the South Jersey Lifeguard Championships, believed to be the oldest such competition in the country (it dates from 1924), drew about 50 contestants in Ventnor, the town just south of Atlantic City, with more than 1,000 spectators on the beach and another couple hundred stopping to watch along the boardwalk.
Only about 40 miles of Garden State Parkway separate Ventnor from Cape May, so it was a simple matter for fans to attend both competitions. The South Jerseys were only about one hour in duration, compared with the three-day nationals, but the schedule was hard on those who wanted to compete in both. Paul Mangen of Ocean City, N.J., won his heat in the surf swim off Cape May on Friday but skipped the final so he could be in the swim at the South Jerseys, which he won. "It's kind of bittersweet," said Mangen after his win, "but I couldn't miss this."
Other lifeguards weren't as quick to praise the South Jerseys. Sven Peltonen, a guard in Brigantine, N.J., was miffed at organizers for keeping the competition on the same weekend as the nationals. "If they're so into tradition," said Peltonen, "why don't they wear old-fashioned woolen suits and row wooden boats? They're only hurting the guards, because the nationals is the big one."
Indeed, to the USLA organizers, the South Jerseys are parochial and stuck in the past. To the South Jerseyites, meanwhile, the nationals are a sideshow that has gussied up what should be a basic test of rowing and swimming. One crowd-pleasing event at the nationals is called "beach flags," a race in which competitors leap from a prone position and try to claim rubber hoses stuck in the sand 20 meters away. (There is always one fewer hose than there are competitors.) "If you can tell me what diving in the sand for a piece of hose has to do with lifeguarding, I'd appreciate it," says Lou Paludi, a former chief of Ventnor's guards and a judge at this year's South Jerseys. USLA officials don't dispute that their competition is filled with bells and whistles. They're trying to increase the USLA's numbers so that they can standardize lifeguard certification and form a stronger lobby to improve "working conditions." (Translation: boost pay; all agree you can't improve on sun and sand as a working environment.)
No matter which competition was your favorite, though, New Jersey proved to be, as always, lifeguard-friendly. "I can't tell you the last time I paid for a lunch around here," says Cape May guard Max Samuelson, who competed in the Landline Rescue Team Relay at the nationals. "Part of the appeal of the job is how much respect you get." Victor Fox, who finished 12th at the nationals, agrees. Though he moved from Cape May to Hollywood, Fla., to work on the beach full time, Fox's heart remains in the Garden State. "People in Florida are in the water 12 months a year," says Fox, "yet New Jerseyites are much better in the ocean. They understand it, and they understand what lifeguards are trying to do."
No one knows that better than Jim Whelan, who served three terms as Atlantic City's mayor (from 1990 to 2002) but is almost as well-known locally for winning South Jersey's�-mile swims in '70 and '71 when he was on the beach in AC. "I raised about $300,000 to get elected," says Whelan, who was in Ventnor for the South Jerseys on Friday, "and at least half of that came from guards and ex-guards. Respect for lifeguards is ingrained in the culture."
Perhaps it's the history. Lifeguards have been watching over the beaches in Atlantic City and Cape May, the nation's oldest seashore resorts, for about 100 years. And as far back as 1848, the United States Life-Saving Service, the precursor to both the U.S. Coast Guard and the Jersey lifeguard units, patrolled the state's beaches to rescue victims of the hundreds of ships that wrecked in rough waters close to shore. In July 1916 several New Jersey lifeguards-then called "life guardsmen"—were involved in rescuing victims of a wave of shark attacks that killed four and injured one other in what has come to be called "twelve days of terror."
This summer the problem hasn't been sharks; it's been the ocean. Several south Jersey patrols were on course to break their records for rescues—through Sunday, Atlantic City guards had saved 611 people-largely because of unpredictable rip currents and unseasonably cold water that has practically paralyzed some swimmers. "The stereotype of the lifeguard is one thing," says USLA official Dick Colosi, who has been a guard in Cape May for 43 years, "but what's forgotten is that we save lives."
Many Jersey guards think that the average compensation, from $60 to $100 a day, does not match the responsibility. But few complain loudly, and the lucky ones (many of them schoolteachers) stay on the beach well into their 50s, living a dual existence. From September to May they work in the classroom so that, come June, they can pick up the whistle, take off their shoes, and head, as they say in Jersey, downa shore. "I've been recruited to be a full-time lifeguard elsewhere, but being in Jersey is a better fit for me," says Billy George, 40, a guard from Monmouth County in central Jersey who won his fifth national tide in the surfboat race last weekend. George is a school administrator who stays in shape with weight training and rowing-machine work in the nine-month off-season. "I love my full-time job," he says, "but the beach is always in the back of my mind. I can't imagine ever giving it up."