A weekly historical column by Ben Miller, author of the best-selling “The First Resort.”
In the nearly 100 years since the Cape May Beach Patrol (CMBP) was first founded, nobody has ever drowned on their watch. Cape May first created a paid lifeguard team in 1911, named the Cape May City Lifeguards. Registered nurses were teamed with lifeguards in the early days, helping to heal and resuscitate victims after guards pulled them out of the water.
These days, the Cape May Beach Patrol is self-sustaining, with a certified paramedic on the squad and each of the lieutenants trained as Emergency Medical Technicians. Those additional skills have come in handy over the years, especially with the current beach situation, which has caused hundreds of back and neck injuries since the most recent beach replenishment.
Within the past week (I write a week in advance), the CMBP has pulled a 62-year-old man and a 10-year-old boy out of the waters and facilitated their transport to the hospital via medical helicopter. Coastal dangers are all too familiar for lifeguards who saw one of their own sustain a broken neck in the treacherous surf. By now, you’ve probably heard about the plight of Chad deSatnick, the former lifeguard who’s endured surgery and years of therapy as a result of his accident.
Being a member of the CMBP requires a combination of strong physical fitness and an equally attuned mind for quick thinking when it counts. Those men and women on the big red and white stands have seen countless bathers in peril, along with other oddities like bacterial infections from the water, a plane crashing into the ocean, a helicopter following suit, boaters in trouble and an unexploded ordnance washing up on shore.
Things were equally busy in the early days. Take this Philadelphia Inquirer article from October 8, 1921: “Lifeguards Rescue Fishing Boat Crew Thrown Up On Rocks.” The article explains, “With their craft thrown up on the rocks at the east end of the government stone jetties by a heavy ebbtide, members of the crew of the fishing schooner Frances Alvord were rescued tonight by life guards from Station No. 135.”
That same year, city lifeguards were involved in the search for the grand-niece and nephew of John Wilbraham, who were kidnapped by their estranged father. The squad’s captain, George Little, reported that he had seen the father strolling the beach with the little girl in July. It was later determined that they were walking to a private yacht used to sneak the kids out of town.
The CMBP maintains a force of 70 guards in season, to ensure that on any given day, at least 55 of them will be available to keep Cape May’s beaches safe. The city recently completed a thorough renovation of the Cape May Beach Patrol Headquarters on the beach at Grant Street. Their new building is fully loaded with lifesaving equipment and the guards have a veritable fleet of labeled dinghies, along with a truck and all-terrain vehicle.
One of the beach patrol’s earliest headquarters was the wheelhouse of a ship installed off the boardwalk.