Sand, surf beckon hardy souls of Ocean City's Beach Patrol TRUE GRIT

May 28, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

Ocean City -- Starting today, a Beach Patrol veteran will be sitting in each of the 87 stands that punctuate the sand from the inlet all the way up to the Delaware line.

Christa Proschinger won't be in one of the tall, shaded chairs with the orange umbrellas. She's still trying to earn one of those spots.

"If I don't make it, I'm so proud of myself that I tried," says the 20-year-old from Philadelphia. "I've never tried anything this hard."

Ms. Proschinger was one of 54 applicants vying on a cold, rainy day last week for one of 42 Beach Patrol openings. She breezed through a 440-meter swim, and willed herself through an ocean swim (in water that was a chilly 59 degrees and air that was 48) to a buoy and back. "It was horrible. I wanted to turn back so bad, but I didn't."

But she stumbled in the sand. Applicants must be able to sprint 300 meters in 65 seconds through deep, soft sand -- the same sand that might separate them from a beachgoer who's had a heart attack or a seizure.

She was not fast enough in her first test. Neither was Eileen Messenger, 21, of Bowie. So Beach Patrol Lt. Skip Lee met the two hopefuls at the beach for a second chance the day after the test. Although both showed significant improvement in their running times, both were still 10 seconds too slow.

So Lieutenant Lee has asked them to practice for a week, and meet him tomorrow for one more try. Both say they are determined to improve enough to make the cut.

"At least we were the best of the girls," says Ms. Messenger after the second attempt.

"I don't want to lose this," says a tearful Ms. Proschinger, still disappointed and gasping from her second sprint. "I understand that they want the best of the best. Out here, you gotta be ready."

Her assessment of the job's demands is echoed by veterans and the patrol's top officer, Capt. George Schoepf. "Believe me, our plate is full," says the former teacher and coach who supervises the 154 members of the Beach Patrol. "There are 350,000 people here on the weekends during June, July and August. And our job is to make sure they have a safe summer, regardless of how irresponsible they are."

Beach Patrol members -- they're not called lifeguards anymore, says Captain Schoepf, but are known as surf rescue technicians -- are responsible for beach safety. Sometimes it's a job as big as the Atlantic itself.

Patrol members are trained in water safety, first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation and water rescue techniques. The 42 applicants who passed the initial trial will go to a five-day rookie school in June. After rookie school, they must pass written and physical tests, as well as a final interview, before they can take a stand on the beach.

The majority of the Beach Patrol slots this year, as in most years, are held by veterans of previous summers. Their ages range from 18 to 50, although most are 18 to 24 years old, says Captain Schoepf.

Experience is an asset in a job that can go from calm to life-or-death in a matter of seconds.

"The ocean, man, it's brutal," says Shawn Bochen, 24, a patrol crew chief beginning his seventh season.

"It's three-quarters of the Earth," adds Vince Cardile, 24. He's also a crew chief and this year will be his fifth.

A big ocean and a big crowd can mean days of almost constant intervention, the veterans say.

"Sometimes you can go in 10 times an hour, 30 times a day," says Mr. Bochen.

He and his fellow patrol members are part of a quasi-military structure that operates from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., seven days a week from Memorial Day weekend until mid-September.

Under Captain Schoepf are four lieutenants, four sergeants and 18 crew chiefs. Each crew leads a group of seven. On the beach, the crew chief will be the center chair in a row of five stands, with two "rovers" (usually first-year members) who keep the stands covered during lunch hours and days off.

Patrol members who see trouble stand up in the chair and sound a plastic whistle. One blast tells a swimmer "you're out too far." Two blasts tell the other members of the crew, "I'm going in, I can handle it but cover me." Three blasts is a full alarm, signaling that more than one swimmer is in trouble and full response is needed.

"When somebody stands up, you know," says Mr. Bochen, describing the close relationship within a crew. "It's like a seventh sense."

Rescued swimmers are not usually effusive in their thanks, say veteran patrol members. In fact, they are more likely to say nothing at all. "They're so embarrassed they run right off the beach," says Mr. Bochen. "But we're not out there for the thank-you's."

So what does keep them coming back, summer after summer? It's not the money ($6.98 an hour to start), or the prestige. It's job satisfaction.

"I love it," says Mr. Cardile. "I like dealing with people, I like helping people."

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