Guardians watching over the beach

August 23, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

OCEAN CITY -- They're summer saviors, watching the beach from high in their white wooden chairs, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., seven days a week.

And a lot have been there before -- nearly two-thirds of Ocean City's 154 Beach Patrol members are working a third, fourth or fifth season this year.

John Zirckel is fourth in seniority in the entire patrol in this, his 14th season in the sun. The 44-year-old teacher and coach first came to Ocean City as a tourist during his childhood in Baltimore; now he's moved out here to stay. He's a Vietnam veteran, the father of a 7-year-old daughter and a dedicated athlete who loves to surf.

Mr. Zirckel has occupied the chair in front of Castle in the Sand motel on 36th Street since 1987, seeing the same families and children year after year as he watches the water, enforces the town's beach rules and helps those who get in over their heads.

Q: What's a typical number of rescues on a summer day?

A: You could have no rescues for 12 days, or you could have 12 rescues in one day, or in one half-day. It depends on the ocean conditions. You usually have the most rescues when the ocean's rough and the sun is out.

Q: What's the most rescues you've ever done in a day?

A: Probably about 15. But there are guards that have done more -- 20, maybe.

Q: Do people you rescue say thanks?

A: I get thanks for about half of them. The other half don't say anything.

Q: Are most of the people you rescue actually drowning?

A: No. They just can't get back in. About 10 percent to 20 percent are in kind of serious trouble.

I'd say they just need varying degrees of help getting back in to the beach. About 10 percent are in serious trouble, but not necessarily drowning.

You gotta go, no matter what kind of trouble they're in. You don't know until you get out there. That's why you always go.

Q: What made you decide to become a lifeguard?

A: I had a lot of water background -- YMCA, camp in the Chesapeake. It all started really when I was 16 or 17 and started surfing. That's my favorite thing to do.

Q: Why do you stay in the same spot every year, in front of Castle in the Sand?

A: I started out as the surfing beach lifeguard at 94th Street. Then somebody wanted to give me this stand. If you've got a certain beach one summer, and you did satisfactory, you can request that beach. It's called squatters' rights.

I see the same families every summer, and see the kids grow up. We're all growing together, I guess. I like the staff here -- Adam Showell [the hotel's owner], the staff. They've always been very nice to me.

Q: Why do you keep coming back to the Beach Patrol?

A: First of all, I like the ocean. I respect it. The ocean is part of my life, and lifeguarding kind of goes with it. Also, it makes you stay in shape, gives you something to train for, keeps you healthy.

The job is sometimes boring, sometimes exciting, sometimes fun and every now and then, it can be life-or-death. It's got the extremes.

Q: Do you wear sun-block?

A: Yes, I wear sun-block -- any kind, ranging from 15 to 40 [sun protection factor]. If it's really sunny, I try to put an umbrella up. But I still probably get too much sun.

Q: You communicate with other guards on the beach using semaphore flags. What do you talk about?

A: Scheduling, the rip currents in the ocean, the amount of people, lost children, the kinds of people on the beach. You have to know your beach. Stuff like that.

Q: When you're watching the water, what do you look for?

A: I'm looking for danger spots. I might look longer at an area with a rip [a sometimes powerful current that pulls outward or crossways].

You look at people's swimming strokes. If there isn't a good one, you spend a little more time watching those people.

Your scan is your most important thing: You scan from the guard north of you, through the water, to the guard south of you.

Q: Have the crowds and the beach changed much since you've been a lifeguard?

A: Not too much. Just different faces and different grains of sand.

Our beach is very nice now, and beach replenishment probably helped that.

Q: What's the most common infraction on the beach?

A: Maybe the ball-playing ordinance. You can play ball under the lifeguard's discretion, which means if it's crowded, you've got to take the ball to the back of the beach so you don't hit anybody with it.

If there's a father and son throwing 10 feet apart with a softball, that's OK. But somebody throwing pass patterns with a leather football . . . .

Q: What questions do you get asked most frequently?

A: What time is it? What street is this? Do you know where I can find a bathroom?

Q: Would you want your daughter to do this job?

A: It would be OK with me if my daughter lifeguards sometime.

A lot of the physical and mental stuff is good for her -- a lot of it is good for everyday life. You have to work with people, have patience with people, enforce the ordinances patiently, but politely. And learn how to deal with emergencies on the beach.

You're gonna see blood from time to time. You have to concentrate on what you're doing.

A couple of times a summer people step on fishhooks, get cut on shells, broken glass. You see dislocated shoulders, dislocated knees. Neck and back injuries occasionally -- there's one you have to be careful with. Epileptic fits, heat exhaustion, allergic reactions -- there's all kinds of stuff.

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