From the time Commodore Wilbert Longfellow set out to “waterproof America” by establishing the Red Cross lifesaving program in 1914 (he’d covered the waterfront for a Rhode Island newspaper and got tired of reporting on drownings), the lifeguard has been a pop culture icon. What’s the job really like? We asked two Jersey Shore vets: Jaime Kelly, 22, with the Ocean City Beach Patrol, and Matt Wolf, 21, an Avalon Beach Patrol lieutenant.
1 Forget all those Baywatch babes — far more David Hasselhoffs than Pamela Andersons guard our beaches. There are only 20 women on the 163-person Ocean City staff, and just 10 to 20 percent of the 95-member Avalon squad is female.
2 Average age? While there are a few seasoned veterans in their late 20s and early 30s, most of the lifeguards are high-school and college students.
3 Their hours and pay aren’t so different from those of their friends with office jobs. Most lifeguards at Avalon and Ocean City work nine-to-five five or six days a week, and start off making about $10 an hour.
4 Avalon guards saved some 400 swimmers last summer. Most at risk? Kids on rafts and boogie boards. “If the wind’s blowing, they just float away really easily,” Kelly says.
5 Kelly also says it’s “pretty easy” to tell the difference between a real emergency and horseplay: “When people are in trouble, they look at you.”
6 Lifeguard wannabes must be ready to outswim and outrun the competition. In Ocean City, there are usually only 20 spots available for the 80 or so hopefuls who try out each year.
7 Once they get the gig, guards aren’t eager to give it up. Area kids and beach aficionados often work for as many as seven or eight summers.
8 Avalon lifeguards are expected to work out every morning for their first two weeks on the job, “to make sure everyone’s in shape,” Wolf says. In Ocean City, most lifeguards hit the gym when they finish their shifts.
9 Both Avalon and Ocean City offer their patrol members complimentary sunscreen (SPFs 30 and 35, respectively). Avalon goes through 52 quarts each summer; Ocean City burns up 84 quarts.
10 At both beaches, there are always at least two people on the stand. “If you get somebody who’s not a good conversationalist, you’re out of luck,” Kelly says.