More than just catching rays
In weeks leading up to the start of summer, hundreds of people turn to healthy and active lifestyles, hoping to shed those last few pounds before slipping back into their swimsuits. It’s the athletic regiment and discipline of the beach patrol that should draw the most attention, however. After all, the healthiest, fittest bodies on the beach may very well be the ones that your life depends on.
“The physical aspect is an integral part of the business,” said Fenwick Island Beach Patrol Capt. Tim Ferry, who has logged nearly 30 years with area lifeguard squads. “We try to present [the workouts] in a number of ways. We work on different aspects — running, swimming and a combination of skills. We stress a solid mix.”
Getting back into the business each year is no walk in the park, as the beach patrol captains explain.
“It takes a good two to three weeks,” said Ferry, “to get back into that transition. There’s a lot that your body has to adjust back to. You have to get acclimated with the waves and running on the sand, both hard and soft. If you’re off of the beach and out of the water the rest of the year, it can be a strain on your lungs and calves once you get back.”
South Bethany Beach Patrol Capt. Chris Miller took on his role as captain when he was only 24, but nine years later, little of his regimen has changed.
“It really tests your cardiovascular system, as well as your entire body,” said Miller. “It’s not like going out and running a mile and using the same muscles the whole time. You use all your muscle groups. It’s taxing on the body.
“I’ve tweaked some things over the years to make some of the workouts more specific to actual rescue scenarios,” he noted. “When you make a rescue, you frequently have to sprint a distance at first, then you have to swim a distance, swim back in, then need to get back to your stand as quickly as possible.”
The key for the captains to keep their guards in top shape is unrelenting cardio and stamina exercises.
“Quick transition from water to land and land to water is really important,” explained Miller. “That’s what you experience on a daily basis. A lot of mornings, I’ll have something in mind, but other times, I just make it up as I go. I’ll vary the workout from day to day. If we’ve got a day where we’re doing a lot of short, interval sprints, from set to set, the next day might be a long, drawn-out workout, where we do a four-mile run.”
Many times, push-ups and sit-ups will be the focus of the workouts. Miller is sure to be more than just cracking a whip all the time, though.
“I’m not going to ask them to do something I can’t do,” he said. “I do the exercises and workouts right along with them.”
Everybody also gets a morning workout break and an afternoon workout break, in which a half-hour is allotted each time for the guards to exercise at their own pace, be it running, swimming or using the paddleboards in the water. On days with rough surf, some guards even opt to hit the waves.
“I’m OK with them doing that,” said Miller, “because, one, it’s a great workout, and, two, they’re becoming more comfortable in rough conditions. It’s those conditions that yield the most rescues, anyway. Some people look at it like, ‘You’re letting them play,’ but they’re also becoming more familiar in those situations, which can help make everyone else safer.”
As with Miller’s regimen, Ferry often mixes up workouts for his beach patrol staff.
“There are a variety of things we’ll do,” he said, “We might start with a long, hard-sand run, and combine it with a long swim. Other times, we’ll run shorter rescue races, done in repeated fashion.” He sometimes incorporates relays and stations into the workouts.
The exercise schedule is still a strenuous one.
“We take it each day,” Ferry said, “from start to mid-summer, increasing the amount of work. We don’t want muscle problems. By mixing it up, we look out for the interest of the lifeguards. It really is a camaraderie sort of thing, too. You’re covering each other all the time, and it’s very encouraging.”
Ferry knows a little thing or two about keeping his guards in top shape, too, as they brought home the gold medal in the 4-by-100 men’s relay at the U.S. National Lifeguard Championships in 2006 and finished with an impressive second behind Rehoboth Beach’s squad last year.
If the daily life of a beach patrol member still sounds like a piece of cake, keep in mind that the each of the guards had to complete rigorous tryouts before they were originally hired. South Bethany’s pre-season tryout is a physical test: a 400-yard soft-sand run and a 500-yard swim in the pool, and the combined time of the two must be less than 10 minutes.
And for three-weeks, on top of the daily workout, rookies attend a lifeguarding school, where they learn how to be an ocean lifeguard, practicing lifesaving situations.
While most people are getting ready to enjoy their sunny day on the beach, the lifeguards have long since been up, getting physically and mentally prepared for the day.
“People don’t realize it,” said Ferry, “but before going up on stands, our guys are out there at 8, 8:30 in the morning. In turn, it’s going to benefit the beachgoers.”
Miller’s guards are on nearly the same schedule. All through the summer, Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 9:30 a.m., the entire beach patrol has a workout schedule that varies from day to day but always pushes the guards to the limit.
Over the decades, the two, along with captains at other area beaches, have had to narrow the field of athletic prospective lifeguards to a select few. And every year the captains see their share of applicants who bite off more than they can chew — often times not anticipating the responsibility and intensity required, or finding they’re not quite ready for the physical challenge.
“Luckily, we can weed those people out pretty quickly,” said Miller. “I’ve had phenomenal athletes come out here, guys who can throw the football a mile, or have played basketball and soccer for years, but then they don’t do so well out here.
“The star player, once he gets out here, may not have the cardiovascular endurance that’s needed. A lot of the big guys who come out don’t always realize that a lot of muscle is going to weigh you down when you’re running through the sand. With the amount of paddling and other exercises we do, you’re going to build the muscle and definition you need to do your job. It’s a different kind of muscle training.”
“You’re going to get lifeguards who are good swimmers and average runners, or good runners and average swimmers,” Ferry observed. “It’s the all-around applicants that really help bring everything together and make a team work.”
Even having first aid knowledge and lifeguarding experience isn’t always enough to guarantee a spot atop the tall chairs.
“Most of the applicants come from a pool lifeguarding background,” said Miller, “but it’s a completely different animal. They have to make sure they can do what’s needed of them.”
For the greenhorns on Ferry’s crew, it’s tough love in the opening weeks.
“People still come in with a slack mentality, but it doesn’t last long,” he said. “For our first-year guards, it’s a rude awakening. Most of the patrols in the area run a pretty good workout to find out who’s going to be on their team each summer. It comes with the territory. Most of the guys will get started in March and April.”
Miller admitted that he, too, usually has ground to make up as the weather gets warmer again.
“I sort of let myself go in the winter,” he said, “then it’s a battle back each year, and it gets a little harder each time as you get a little older.”
There are 32 guards that help watch over the Fenwick coastline, with 18 to 20 on duty any given day in the summer.
“Every year,” Ferry said, “we nearly had a perfect return rate. I haven’t had to hire more than four new guards most years. It’s a great part of the job when everyone wants to be back in it.”
The busiest time of the summer won’t be upon the guards until Memorial Day weekend, but Ferry knows that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“From there,” he said, “we’ll work our way towards Fourth of July, getting into the meat of summer.”
Typically, there are 22 lifeguards who patrol the beaches of South Bethany, but Miller has bumped up his number to 24 this year, with the recent widening of the beach as part of its reconstruction. The application process for both patrols is also drawing near as warmer weather approaches.