The Beachcomber

Island Lifeguard Tournament Has Evolved in Great Ways the Past 55 Years

By DAVID BIGGY | May 26, 2017

Every August, Long Beach Island is home to many thrilling and fun activities. But if you’re a local, summertime resident or regular visitor and in any way connected to any of the beach patrols, August is “the month” when the “big stuff” really happens.

And for the past 55 years, the “big stuff” really refers to the LBI Beach Patrol Association Lifeguard Tournament – the main event of the competition season.

“It’s a big deal, and it’s always been a big deal,” said Don E. Adams, who started lifeguarding in 1965 and has captained the Barnegat Light Beach Patrol since his switch from Ship Bottom in 1975. “You’re king of the Island if your team wins. The bragging rights are huge, and I think every beach patrol on the Island really gets excited for it.”

Since 1962, the summer following a devastating March nor’easter, the tournament has been a staple on the Island, some years drawing thousands of spectators. It not only has had a uniqueness all its own for more than five decades, but it’s also the second-longest-running tournament in New Jersey – eclipsed in longevity only by the tourney featuring southern Jersey beach patrols between Brigantine and Cape May.

But what has made the Island tournament so special for so long is not so much its longevity and unique features, but more its evolution throughout the years. By all measures, this tournament is better now than it was in 1962, and for many good reasons. However, the standard of excellence in terms of the competition level has never wavered. It’s always been a tremendous tournament with tremendous competition amongst the six Island beach patrols.

The Beginnings of Something Big

When former Long Beach Township Beach Patrol captain Art Jocher first organized the tournament in 1962, a standard was set immediately. All six Island beach patrols – Township, Barnegat Light, which had a combined crew with Barnegat Lighthouse State Park at the outset, Harvey Cedars, Beach Haven, Ship Bottom and Surf City – were part of it, and from the start the tourney showcased the top-notch abilities of the Island’s guards.

Barnegat Lighthouse State Park won the tournament championship each of the first three years, before Barnegat Light became its own patrol and continued the win streak by winning the title for three more years in 1965, 1966 and 1967.

“I remember the first time I raced the Mile Row, I had to go up against a guy named Joe Mikol. He was known as ‘Barnegat Joe,’ and he was the best rower on the Island back then,” said Adams, who at the time was 17 years old. “He was the kind of guy who would beat you and then teach you. It was a good experience because I learned from the best. But I rowed against him at least three times and never beat him.”

Don Myers, Township’s beach patrol supervisor from 1986 to 2013 and the Island tournament’s director from 1975 through 2012, recalled how Coast Guard boats would take the rowers out a mile offshore and they’d have to row a relatively straight course, with their backs to the beach the entire way.

“Back then, the tournament was a bit more haphazard,” said Myers, who started lifeguarding in 1967 at 18 years old, but didn’t compete in the Island tourney until 1972. “The rules were really loose.”

Eventually, in 1968, Ship Bottom emerged as king of the Island and won two of the next three years (1970 and 1971), while Barnegat Light took the top spot in 1969. But interestingly, one of those “loose” rules got a bit tighter following the 1970 tournament – after Township guard John Tichy and Line Pull teammates Tim Stack and Billy West came up with a new strategy for trying to win the event.

“Rather than Tim and Billy each pull the line a certain distance up the beach, drop the line and run back, then pull the line up the beach over and over, we came up with a different strategy,” said Tichy, now a Southern Regional High School history teacher who’s retiring at the end of the school year. “This was in Beach Haven, so we lined ourselves up with Centre Street, and when the guys pulled me in, they were going to keep pulling the line over the dune and up Centre Street.

“Well, I was the last swimmer out to the buoy, but, sure enough, Tim and Billy picked up the line, pulled it up the beach, over the dune and up Centre Street. I ended up finishing third, and some of the other patrols complained. But at the time there was no rule against doing that, so we did it. I think the rules were changed the following year.”

More Teams Reach
The Pinnacle of Success

After 10 years of dominance by either Barnegat Light or Ship Bottom, Harvey Cedars climbed its way to the top of the Island mountain and became the only team other than The Light to win three or more consecutive titles during the first 23 years, capturing the tourney trophy in 1972, 1973 and 1974.

Ship Bottom scored its fourth title in 1975, followed by Barnegat Light in 1976, before Ship Bottom swiped the next two championships in 1977 and 1978. And then Surf City finally emerged as one of the top teams, snagging the trophy each of the next two years, in 1979 and 1980. Ship Bottom culminated the first 23 years with back-to-back titles in 1981 and 1982.

During the next 22 years, let’s just say only two teams really mattered. With the exception of 1989, when Ship Bottom captured its last championship to date, the Island tournament, for all intents and purposes, became the Long Beach Township and Barnegat Light Show – Township won four straight from 1985 to 1988 before Ship Bottom swiped the top spot, but during the next 17 years only LBT and The Light were at the top, and for most of those years they were the two teams at the top of the tourney standings.

“Those were some intense years,” Myers said. “The rivalry that developed was fueled by the fact both Barnegat Light and Township had really powerhouse teams, and the testosterone level was off the chart. On those nights of competition, it was fierce. Each team wanted to win and have the bragging rights that came along with that trophy.”

From 1985 to 2005, Long Beach Township won all of its 14 titles to date, while Barnegat Light won a smattering of titles in 1992, 1994, 1996, 2000, 2002 and 2004. The Light also won in 2006, before Surf City had a resurgence under Capt. Mark Dileo and for the second time in its history won back-to-back titles, in 2007 and 2008. Barnegat Light regained the trophy in 2009 and won the next five championships, before Capt. Randy Townsend and the Vikings from Harvey Cedars won back-to-back crowns in 2015 and 2016.

“One of the great things about the Island tournament is that it’s a closed tournament, only for the Island beach patrols, and that created a high level of competition right from the start,” Townsend said. “The other thing is that it really showcases the depth of each patrol’s abilities in all facets of lifeguarding. Our tournament covers the full depth of field when it comes to our practice.”

An Evolution
Unlike Any Other

Unlike many lifeguard competitions around the country, the ones in New Jersey have had to evolve alongside continually changing standards set by the state’s governing bodies. Since 1992, New Jersey has been the only state to require a specific certification to be an ocean lifeguard – for which a high standard of testing criteria needs to be met.

“Our lifeguards on the Island have to meet very specific minimum standards to become certified to guard on the ocean beaches,” Myers explained. “And because our lifeguards must meet those standards, it absolutely improves the quality of the tournament because our guards are high quality.”

During the late ’70s, when the female lifeguards were brought into the competition realm, that, too, made an impact because, suddenly, the women also were utilizing their skills to win tournament events, some in tandem with the men. Preceding the first women’s paddleboard race in 1995, won by Barnegat Light’s Katie Cornell, the women’s events included the 1,000-foot Doubles Row and 1,000-foot Swim.

Of course, as more women have become exposed to increased athletic competition at the high school and college levels during the past 30 years, their impact in the tournament has become more prominent – hence the addition of the Ironwoman event during the later 2000s. And that’s in addition to the fact the men are, by far, much better conditioned and tailored with greater athletic skill sets than in the past as well.

“The kids today are much better than we were back in the ’60s and ’70s, even the ’80s,” Adams said. “They’re bigger, stronger and faster. If I was 17 now, I think most of them would clean me up. They’re just far and away more athletic, and there’s no question it raises the competition level of the tournament.”

If that weren’t enough, consider that by the later 1990s most of the beach patrols had Lifeguard-in-Training programs, which developed and prepared younger teenagers to be lifeguards when they met the state-required minimum age of 16. And then there’s the equipment – surfboats and oars are more efficient, and paddleboards are continually being improved for better performance, as are wetsuits.

Additionally, since 1978 the tournament rules have stipulated that a single competitor can compete in a maximum of two events, which also has forced patrols to increase the depth of their competition crews.

“Look at all the factors involved,” Myers said. “You have high-quality guards, most of whom are incredible athletes. You have feeder systems with kids who, by the time they’re sitting in a chair on the beach, already have very good skills. The equipment is much better. Add in the experience of many of the guards in each town, and that just raises the quality level of the tournament. And it has 18 or 19 events over two days. So, if you win it that’s a big deal because it’s the best tournament around.”

Townsend agreed, adding that it’s more an effort of an entire town, not just a beach patrol.

“You can’t win the tournament without the support of the town,” he said. “The lifeguards are the ones competing, but there are a lot of people behind the scenes who help put us in a position to be the best we can be out there. If not for them, our level of performance wouldn’t be where it is. And that goes for what we do on an everyday basis, which is protect the lives of the people who use our beaches.”

That always has been the most important aspect of the tournament – that it replicates the intensity of rescue situations and proves all guards have the skills to do their jobs correctly.

“It really has been interesting to see how the Island tournament has evolved into a tournament like no other in New Jersey,” Myers said. “But it’s always been representative of what the guards do here. Even if you come in dead last, it still proves your lifeguards are more than capable of making that rescue from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., when they’re on their beaches.”

 

 

LBIBPA Island Tournament Champions by Year

1962-64 – Barnegat Lighthouse State Park

1965-67 – Barnegat Light

1968 – Ship Bottom

1969 – Barnegat Light

1970-71 – Ship Bottom

1972-74 – Harvey Cedars

1975 – Ship Bottom

1976 – Barnegat Light

1977-78 – Ship Bottom

1979-80 – Surf City

1981 – Ship Bottom

1982 – Barnegat Light

1983-84 – Ship Bottom

1985-88 – Long Beach Township

1989 – Ship Bottom

1990-91 – Long Beach Township

1992 – Barnegat Light

1993 – Long Beach Township

1994 – Barnegat Light

1995 – Long Beach Township

1996 – Barnegat Light

1997-99 – Long Beach Township

2000 – Barnegat Light

2001 – Long Beach Township

2002 – Barnegat Light

2003 – Long Beach Township

2004 – Barnegat Light

2005 – Long Beach Township

2006 – Barnegat Light

2007-08 – Surf City

2009-14 – Barnegat Light

2015-16 – Harvey Cedars

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