Officials have decided guards will not train on or use the boats for at least the remainder of the year.
Norman Inferrera III was badly injured when a wave overturned his surf boat. He died the next day after being airlifted to Cooper University Medical Center in Camden.
The first-year guard was not on a rescue. He was rowing to another beach, in what Beach Patrol Chief Harry Back described as a day-to-day, routine activity for a lifeguard.
His death brought an outpouring of sympathy and grief from the local community and from beach patrol members throughout the country and around the world. Gov. Phil Murphy ordered flags at half-staff in Inferrera’s memory Friday, and City Council voted to name a beach in his honor.
It has also raised questions, from some, about the use of surf boats, a ubiquitous part of New Jersey beaches for more than a century.
According to Mayor Zack Mullock, the city will take a careful look at the boats’ place in modern lifesaving and on the beach.
Some suggest the boats belong to another era, superseded by rescue surfboards and personal watercraft.
“They are more tradition than necessity,” wrote a commenter on Twitter. “Time to rethink.”
But veteran guards say the boats continue to serve a vital role.
“It’s the fastest and easiest way to get out to save a person,” said Lt. Woody Ferry of the Ventnor Beach Patrol. He’s had 48 years on the beach.
In Cape May, Back said the Van Duyne surfboat, the standard for most beach patrols in the region, was designed to get through the waves and provide a stable platform for rescues. In a boat, a lifeguard gets a better view of the surrounding water and a mobile platform from which to launch a rescue.
But their use has dropped in Cape May in recent years. He cited the changing shape of the beach.
“Prior to replenishment, they were used frequently,” he said. “They still function as a rescue vessel in certain circumstances. They’re there in case they’re needed.”
Before a federal replenishment project reshaped the beach in Cape May, the beach sloped gradually out over a long distance. When a series of federal projects added massive amounts of sand, starting in 1991, it created a much steeper beach.
That means rescues tend to be closer to the beach, Back said.
“Every beach is a little bit different, too. Every time they do a beach fill, it changes the contour of the beach,” Back said. “It’s always evolving.”
Several experienced guards made the same point: The correct rescue approach depends on a myriad of factors, including the slope of the beach, the strength of the waves, the direction and strength of the currents and the size of the crowd. Each variable changes day to day.
“It’s another tool in the toolbox,” said Wildwood Beach Patrol Chief Steve Stocks. “You want to match the lifeguard skills, the size of the crowd and the size of the waves. There are days when the boat is the best tool in the toolbox.”
In Wildwood and other beaches, there is often a guard or two stationed in the water past the crowd on busy weekend days, creating what Stocks described as a triangle of safety. The guard can keep an eye on swimmers and make sure no one goes out too far. Sometimes, the guard is in the water with a torpedo-shaped flotation device known as a can, sometimes on a rescue surfboard, and sometimes there are two guards in a boat.
“The boat provides a platform where the lifeguard is up, out of the water,” he said. This gives a much better view of the crowd. A guard can even stand in the boat, giving a raised view similar to being on a lifeguard stand on the beach.
Stocks has also seen a decline in the use of the boat in his years on the beach. A single guard can take out a rescue board, move safely through a crowd and quickly reach a swimmer in trouble. In some circumstances, that’s a better option than the boat.
“The boat has taken a lesser role to the rescue board. That’s not a criticism of the boat. It’s just a fact,” Stocks said.
Tradition plays a part in the appeal of surf boats, acknowledged Fred Miller, a local historian who spent decades with the Ocean City Beach Patrol.
“I’m old fashioned. I’m for the boats,” he said. “Without them, where are you going to get your picture taken?”
He said the boats are part of a long tradition in South Jersey, with the first lifeguard boats appearing on beaches in the 1890s. The smaller rescue boats were built in a similar style to the longer surf boats used by the United States Lifesaving Service to rescue people from shipwrecks off the coast.
When he began as a lifeguard in Stone Harbor in 1960, the boats were still made of wood. They would get heavier over time, as the wood became waterlogged and sand would get embedded in the cracks. Within about a decade, patrols moved to fiberglass boats like the ones the Van Duyne family designed decades ago in Atlantic County and continues to manufacture.
The design has not changed. The material is lighter than the wooden boats and requires little maintenance. They are designed to punch through the waves. In rescues, the boats would have two lifeguards on board.
While lighter than wood, the boats still weigh in at about 350 pounds.
Lifeguards work closely with fire departments, police and ambulance services, Stocks said, and use every tool available. In shore towns, rescue boards are a common sight on firetrucks, and many have boats assigned to the police or fire companies.
“No one knows what a line reel is, but there’s one on every truck,” Stocks said. It allows a swimmer to bring a line out to someone in distress who can then be pulled in to the beach.
Miller described rescues when he was an Ocean City lifeguard in the 1970s he said would not have been possible without a surf boat, including rowing out when a banner plane crashed into the ocean to pull the pilot aboard.
“If it wasn’t for the lifeboat, we probably would not have gotten out there in time,” Miller said.
There are also times when a powerful rip current can pull several swimmers out at once.
“They are invaluable for multiple-person rescues,” Miller said. “If you have to get 10 or 12 people, a surfboard or a Jet Ski is not going to make it.”
Lifeguard races also remain a local institution. Patrols from throughout the shore compete in a series of events each summer, including rowing races. The recent North Wildwood Beach Patrol Around the Island Row was dedicated to Inferrara.
A representative of the U.S. Lifesaving Association said there are beach patrols around the country that use boats, but they are not universal, and other regions are not as dedicated to the boats as South Jersey beach patrols are. Supporters say that is because the boats were designed for local conditions.
There is plenty of variation among local patrols as well. For instance, Wildwood has one boat for every six lifeguard stands, while in Ventnor, there is one for every stand.
“We have 11 stands and 11 boats, and we have two spares,” Ferry said.
Each painted with the name of the town, the inverted boats on the sand are as much a part of the beach experience in South Jersey as boardwalk rides and salt water taffy. Ocean City has a surf boat displayed at the entrance to town at 34th Street and another in a park on Ninth Street for visitors to pile in for photos.
“It’s all part of the mystique of being an ocean lifeguard,” said Miller. “A lot of it is tradition, but I think there is still a place for the boats.”
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