Lifeguards find satisfaction in surf work


August 02, 1991|By Linda Geeson | Linda Geeson,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

OCEAN CITY — Patrick Dearborn's picture shows up a lot on the bulletin board at My Place, a sandwich shop near 115th Street. In each shot, the handsome Annapolis native is wearing his official Ocean City Beach Patrol red sweats and embracing a beautiful woman.

Only thing is, it's never the same woman.

That's our Pat. He has a new girl every week," teases Carolyn Reale, owner of My Place and surrogate mother to about a third of Ocean City's 150-member beach patrol. Many of the lifeguards gather at her shop at mealtime and for some, it's their only respite between a long day on the beach and nighttime jobs.

While the beach may be a way of life for many lifeguards, it's not the only thing in their lives. Once their beach duty ends at 5:30 p.m., these industrious guards head to extra jobs to finance their college educations or travel plans.

Mr. Dearborn, 22, is in his third year on the O.C. beach patrol. Dependingon which night you're looking, you can find him working as a doorman at one of three resort bars.

"I'd say I'm working 70 to 75 hours a week now," he says. "Last year I worked more than 80 hours a week."

Mr. Dearborn's motivation for the extra employment is money. He's paying his tuition and living expenses for his final year at Frostburg State College. The Army pays two-thirds of the veteran paratrooper's college costs; summer in Ocean City pays for the rest.

He admits he could clear more money working as a waiter or a pool guard back home in Annapolis, where he could live rent-free with his parents. But some of the other rewards would be missing.

"It's not the same as lifeguarding down at the beach, saving people's lives," he says. "I don't work as a lifeguard for the money, I work as a lifeguard for the job."

And staying in shape is an important part of the job. Lifeguard Sgt. Dave Griffith -- "The G Man," to his colleagues -- says keeping fit is his biggest off-duty diversion, though he also tends bar every Friday night at Trader Lee's ("mainly 'cause it's a blast").

"We work out a lot," says the 29-year-old Woodlawn native, whose routine includes daily running and swimming. He also spends a lot of his after-hours, after-training time drumming up sponsors and support for the beach patrol's participation in lifeguarding competitions, such as next week's U.S. Lifesaving Association's national championships in Chicago in which he and about a dozen other O.C. lifeguards will participate.

For Sergeant Griffith, lifeguarding doesn't end with summer. When the Ocean City season ends, he heads for similar duties on the beaches of Florida or Hawaii.

"I've been working here 12 years now," Sergeant Griffith says, "and I've never called in sick. I've been real sick out there, too, sitting there for eight hours in the rain. But what if somebody drowns because you were out sick?" He shakes his head.

If Dave Griffith's training schedule seems tough, consider the case of lifeguard James Fellows. At 20, he's in his third season on the Beach Patrol. It's also his first season on the Eastern Volleyball Association's Pro Beach East volleyball tour, which means long hours of training and practice games, not to mention drives as long as 12 hours to get to competitions all up and down the East Coast.

"You learn to live on six hours' sleep and be happy," he says. "It's definitely worth it." Mr. Fellows, who grew up in College Park and hopes someday to make his living from pro volleyball, will attend Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., this fall. Until then, he says his routine is work on the beach patrol, work out, work as a bouncer at a local bar and sleep.

"Your first summer here, it's just fun all the time," he says. "By the second summer, you learn that if you're here to make money, it's there to be made. The novelty of the partying wears off pretty fast."

Some Ocean City lifeguards aren't looking for a second job; for them, the beach patrol is a second job.

Warren Williams of Whaleysville works Monday through Friday as an electrical engineer at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility near Chincoteague, Va. Weekends, holidays and vacations, he's a lieutenant with the Ocean City Beach Patrol.

"Originally, it was a relief to be able to get out on the beach and get away from the stress of my other job," says the 29-year beach patrol veteran. "Since I became an officer, my beach patrol responsibilities are as much as or maybe more than those at work."

That doesn't mean Lieutenant Williams, 52, wants out of ... TC lifeguarding. In fact, he hasn't missed a weekend or a holiday since 1972.

"A lot of my friends play golf and fish and do a lot of interesting things on their days off," he says. "But I like to think they'd rather be doing what I do. I feel younger than the people in my peer group." He says his youthful attitude also helps him work comfortably with his 27-year-old son Sean, a fellow beach patrol officer.

Though NASA is cooperative when it comes to scheduling his vacations and days off to suit his beach patrol schedule, the folks there don't really understand what sends the engineer back to the beach.

"I get called a beach bum," he admits. "They think I sit on the beach all day and look at girls. They don't realize all the responsibility we have.

"As long as I feel needed, I'll keep coming back," adds Lieutenant Williams. "I'm crazy about Ocean City, I love the ocean and the beach. Working for the government, you don't always see the results, see the rewards. There are a lot of rewards working the beach patrol, especially when you're able to save a life."

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