By Donald Wittkowski
Prior to 1919, the lifeguards who protected beachgoers in Sea Isle City were usually employees of the hotels or railroads.
Sometimes, neighbors would pool their money to hire “subscription lifeguards” to keep an eye on swimmers.
Predictably, the lack of a professional beach patrol in town had tragic consequences.
“People were drowning. There’s no doubt about it,” local historian Mike McHale explained.
However, all that changed on July 11, 1919, when Sea Isle established a professional beach patrol, forever changing how the lives of thousands and thousands of beachgoers over the past 100 years would be protected.
Using vintage black-and-white photos, McHale and Bill Gallagher, who are former lifeguards, chronicled the history of the Sea Isle City Beach Patrol during a presentation Saturday at the library.
Their remarks were part of the city’s centennial celebration of the beach patrol this week. The festivities kicked off on Thursday with a parade down the Promenade that featured 100-year-old Andy Sannino, Sea Isle’s oldest living former lifeguard, serving as grand marshal.
Sannino was a lifeguard for only one year, in 1941, because he was called to military service during World War II.
McHale, 73, who was a lifeguard for 11 years and led the beach patrol as its captain in 1982, credited the Sea Isle Women’s Civic Club with prodding the city to establish a professional beach patrol in 1919.
“They were a big thrust in getting the city’s fathers to have a professional beach patrol,” he said.
McHale entered politics after his lifeguard career was over, formerly serving as a city commissioner and as mayor. After his political career ended, he became a leading member of the Sea Isle City Historical Society & Museum.
Gallagher, 75, who was a lifeguard from 1963 to 1966 and served as captain from 1970 to 1977, joked that the beach patrol of 1919 was similar to the beach patrol of today in one key respect.
“Just like today, they were low-paid lifeguards,” he said amid laughter from the library audience.
McHale and Gallagher paid tribute to the beach patrol’s captains over the years, pointing out the innovations and improvements they implemented to save lives and make Sea Isle’s lifeguards more professional.
Sea Isle’s first beach patrol captain was John Coleman, who served from 1919 to 1922. Other captains who served for multiple years included Antonio “Jumbo” Cannavo (1925 to 1937), John Oaks (1938 to 1944), John Wilsey (1947 to 1955), his brother, Bill Wilsey (1956 to 1964), Joe Bowan (1965 to 1969), Bill Gallagher (1970 to 1977) and Tom McCann (1978 to 1981 and 1983 to 1984).
Renny Steele, 69, who currently leads the beach patrol as its chief, has been a lifeguard for 49 years.
Some of the major beach patrol safety innovations over the years include the use of rescue and medical equipment, CPR certification for lifeguards, a training school for rookie lifeguards and a flag system to warn beachgoers of choppy or dangerous surf.
Currently, 15 of Sea Isle’s lifeguards are certified as EMTs. The beach patrol headquarters at 44th Street and the Promenade includes a fully staffed medical room for emergencies.
There is also a “Night Alert System” for after-hours rescues. It consists of an emergency response team that is on duty at beach patrol headquarters from 5:30 p.m. to dusk, McHale and Gallagher said.
All of the modern safety innovations represent a dramatic difference from the pre-1919 days of amateur lifeguards. Once it became clear in the early 1900s that a professional beach patrol was needed in Sea Isle, there was a “huge public outcry,” Gallagher noted.
Members of the public can learn more about the beach patrol’s 100-year history in a special exhibit now on display at the Sea Isle City Historical Museum inside the library at 4800 Central Avenue.
Eric Greensmith, who was Sea Isle lifeguard before he became an anesthesiologist in Pennsylvania, marveled over some of the beach patrol memorabilia in the exhibit, including old black-and-white photos. He laughed when he found himself in one lifeguard photo from the 1970s.
Greensmith, 64, of Lancaster, Pa., said he took great pride in protecting the lives of so many beachgoers.
“It was a tremendous sense of satisfaction. The whole time I was there, we never had a drowning on a guarded beach,” he said of his summers as a lifeguard from 1972 to 1975.