The South Jersey Lifeguard Championships has been a fixture of the summer season since 1949, but the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of that prestigious event and most, if not all, of the other South Jersey beach patrol races.
“It’s really a tough one for me because I want to race,” said Longport Beach Patrol rower Sean Duffey, 37, of the cancellations. “Mike (McGrath) and I still train like we’re racing, because it’s part of the job to train. I love to race. I look forward to every Friday (the day in which many of the big events are usually held), but I understand. The job is public safety.”
The South Jersey Lifeguard Chiefs Association recently had a virtual meeting and decided it was best to cancel the races. The 15-patrol association oversees lifeguarding from Brigantine to Cape May Point.
The Longport patrol would have been going for its fifth straight South Jersey Championships team title. The doubles crew of McGrath and Duffey has helped to lead the way each of the last four years.
The biggest safety problem is the fans, who number in the thousands at the biggest events and are bunched together behind a rope at the shoreline. It’s nearly always early evening at the races, and people have a good time cheering on the athletes. But they are often very close together.
“All the (beach patrol) chiefs got together on Zoom, and we decided it was wisest to cancel everything for the year, just to be cautious,” said Sandy Bosacco, the president of the association. “The safety of the competitors and spectators is what’s important. It was a tough decision. The South Jersey Championships (which began in 1924) might be the oldest lifeguard event in the country. But there are hundreds and sometimes thousands of people who come to lifeguard races.”
Also gone are big August events such as the Margate World War II Memorial Lifeguard Races, the Bill Howarth Women’s Lifeguard Invitational and the John T. Goudy Memorial Rescue Races.
In late June, the chiefs canceled the July events and decided to wait and see on the rest of the season. But things regarding the virus haven’t gotten any better.
“We were hoping that the COVID-19 would clear up, but it doesn’t seem to be happening,” Bosacco said.
For the South Jersey Championships, considered the top beach patrol event of the summer, this would have been its 81st edition. The Margate Memorials had taken place each year since it began in 1946. The Howarth Invitational would have been in its 26th straight year.
Ventnor Beach Patrol Lt. Meghan Holland has won several South Jersey women’s races over the years in the singles and doubles row and the surf dash.
“Everyone loves to compete, but we had to cancel because we have to put the health of our guards as the priority,” said Holland, 37. “The racing is the highlight of the season, but this year is so different. The most important thing is to keep the bathers and the beachgoers safe. Our guards are in great shape. They run, row and swim every day, and we practice rescues several times a week.”
A few smaller races have been held. McGrath and Duffey won a Brennan McCann Masters Row race (a non-South Jersey Association event) on July 11 at Seaview Harbor beach in Egg Harbor Township.
Bosacco said individual towns may still decide to have their races.
Avalon Beach Patrol Capt. Murray Wolf hasn’t given up hope of his patrol’s athletes racing somewhere this summer. Wolf knows it’s not likely that the David J. Kerr Jr. Memorial Lifeguard Races, Avalon’s signature event in early August, will be held. But he still has hope.
Wolf began his career as an Avalon guard at the age of 16 in 1955.
“It’s very strange to not have the events this year,” Wolf said. “It’s (the Kerr Memorials) up to the city administrators, and the public safety people and the mayor (Martin Pagliughi). Anything we can do, we’ll do, and anything we can’t do, we can’t do.”
GALLERY: Look back at South Jersey lifeguard races