July 2019

They’ve Come a Long Way: Beach Patrol Centennial is a Reunion for the Ages

By Dave Bontempo

The first SIC Beach Patrol Captain, John Coleman.

Current Beach Patrol Chief Renny Steele.

How far would you travel for the party of parties, the reunion of reunions?


How about from Hawaii to Sea Isle City? That’s the roughly 10,000-mile round-trip journey that John Sink will make to join a celebration involving about 200 of his lifeguard friends and colleagues on July 11 and 13. A blowout, centennial celebration of the Sea Isle City Beach Patrol delivers Mardi Gras right after Fourth of July weekend, and perhaps an unprecedented fever pitch. There will likely be more Sea Isle lifeguards and families here that week than at any point in the borough’s history.


Sink joins festivities that include a surf boat parade of all 15 South Jersey beach patrols, tours, speeches and the SICBP Alumni Hall of Fame induction. (Check the updated schedule on the beach patrol website, sicbp.com.) The celebration will assemble guards from several eras, families, memories, and stories growing more colossal with age.


Hey, you only turn 100 once.


The parade will be led by a 26-foot United States Lifesaving Service boat, according to Tom McCann, who serves on the committees that organized the weekend. Before beach patrols, boats like this were used to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners and passengers. It was a forerunner of the Coast Guard.


McCann believes there has never been a boat parade of this magnitude anywhere in the country. The sentiment has been mirrored by other beach patrol officers.


Sink, meanwhile, returns to where he served for several decades.


“There are friends I have made there since 1959, I am excited to be going back,” Sink, 76, says from Hawaii, one of two residences he has taken up in a roughly 15-year post-retirement period; California is the other. “This is something special, I’ve been really looking forward to it.”


John Sink, a 43-year member of the SICBP.


Sink served 43 years as a Sea Isle lifeguard, beginning in 1959, and has also been a Philadelphia School District administrator. Along with current chief Renny Steele, he has one of the most remarkable service records in patrol history.


Steele, who began his lifeguard career in 1968, later became captain (the title has since been changed to chief) and is the longest-serving head of the patrol by far, at 34 years.


Sink never went into administration and thus, at 43 years, is considered to have served the longest beach tenure of anyone in the patrol. He preferred remaining a guard his entire career.


“What we prided ourselves in as lifeguards was saving lives, helping people and educating them,” he says. “I spent a lot of time on the 90th Street beach, and you get to know everybody coming on.


“One thing I really liked was helping people who did not look familiar,” he adds. “I would go up to people and alert them to things they may not have known, like telling a young mother taking her kids out in the water that there was a tide coming in and that pretty soon that water was going to be over their kids’ heads. People were appreciative, there was a pride in looking out for them.”


It’s no small matter. Sink emphasized the qualifying tests all guards must complete before each summer season. A lifeguard must still run a mile, often under 7 minutes, at any age, to remain on a beach patrol. Skills demonstrating the ability to reach a lifesaving scene quickly and to show strength in pulling people from the water must be shown.


The spirit is contagious. Sink also has three family members: brother Tom, son John Jr. and daughter Jennifer, who have served on the SICBP. Up and down the patrol, one can spot multiple generations of service in a family. Many are college athletes.


Steele will not travel the furthest but has been in charge the longest. Now in his sixth decade, he has helped the patrol advance in technology, equipment and life-saving practices. Steele is also familiar to Sea Isle Times readers for compiling one of the most comprehensive safety-tips lists for the public. He recalls a steady, proficient evolution of beach-patrol service.


“There was one lifeguard stand on 43rd Street when the patrol was established on July 11, 1919,” he says. “As Sea Isle’s population grew, additional stands were added. This year there will be a new lifeguard tower at 56th Street. Today, the patrol operates 24 stands from 24th to 92nd Street.


“As the number of beach patrons increased over the years and the population become more senior, medical emergencies on the beach become more prevalent than water rescues,” he adds. “It was realized that first aid and CPR were not enough. Today, the beach patrol has 13 Emergency Medical Technicians on staff who handle, during an average summer, 250 medical emergencies.


“Due to a number of afterhours drownings along the South Jersey coast, Sea Isle enacted an ALERT Team [Afterhours Lifeguard Emergency Response Team] whose purpose it is to respond to water emergencies from the time the lifeguards go off duty until dark.”


Sea Isle City also reflected the nationwide movement in opportunities for stellar female athletes following the 1972 enactment of Title IX, which prohibits educational institutions from discriminating based on gender.


“Another notable change was the hiring of Sea Isle’s first female lifeguard in 1974,” Steele says. “For many years it was believed that only males had the necessary strength to perform ocean rescues. This concept has been disproved over and over again since that first hiring of Peggy Lawlor in 1974. Today, Sea Isle’s lifeguard force is approximately 23 percent female.”

Sea Isle also has fashioned excellent female teams for the lifeguard race circuit in recent years.



Tom McCann, the author of two books and a former captain, is the beach patrol’s historian. The pre-beach patrol era was illuminating, he says. It involved, among other things, hotels supplying guards on their own section of the beach and entrepreneurs with athletic backgrounds being hired by neighborhoods to patrol a section of the beach for them. They were called subscription lifeguards.


And then there was the railroad route. Patrons would come from Philadelphia, to be dropped off in what is now Excursion Park. The lifeguard would keep watch over his patrons and then accompany them home.


The process evolved into the patrol that guards the beaches today. McCann says there have been 16 captains and chiefs leading the patrol.


This is the list:

John Coleman (1919-22)

William Stevens (1923)

D.A. Duross (1924)

Antonio Cannavo (1925-37)

John Oakes (1938-44)

Walter Holmes (1945)

Joseph McSorley (1946)

John Wilsey (1947-55)

William Wilsey (1956-64)

Joseph Bowen (1965-69)

William Gallagher (1970-77)

Tom McCann (1978-81, 1983-84)

Mike McHale (1982)

Steward Bakley (1985)

Warren “Renny” Steele (1986-present)


 State Sen. Jeff Van Drew is flanked by 2018 Sea Isle City Beach Patrol Hall of Fame inductees (from left): Dr. Sean Harbison,
Greg Horton, Miles Lederer and Tom Flood (representing SICBP’s first captain, John Coleman).


McCann credits John Wilsey with a revolutionary role in propelling the patrol to consistent standards. He ushered in the emergency flag system, making sure guards were in uniform and standardizing 56 rules, McCann says. Safety advancements, junior programs, rookie schools and testing have all intensified over the years.


“A celebration like this validates the importance of having rescuers on these waters,” McCann says. “People don’t realize how dangerous they can be. We should be parading; we should be celebrating.”


At least every 100 years, anyway.



The Hall of Fame inductees include Tom McFadden, an outstanding rower; stalwart swimmer Blake Trabuchi-Downey; LaSalle College rower and longtime guard Matt Ledwith; and John McCann, a top doubles rower who also obtained notoriety outside of Sea Isle City. John McCann, as captain, also led Wildwood Beach Patrol to its first prestigious South Jerseys title in 51 years, in 1987 … Tom McCann says Bert Soden has a different type of distinction, serving as a lifeguard continuously since 1965 in Sea Isle City, Wildwood, and Florida, where the journeyman lifeguard still is working … Braca Café has a unique connection to this event. In 1919, it donated money to the volunteer program and took out an ad in the beach patrol yearbook. One hundred years later, it will be a gathering spot after lunch, following the early festivities of July 11.



The following is the South Jersey Lifeguard race schedule for 2019. Check with beaches before attending, schedule subject to occasional change. Times are 6:30pm unless noted.



5: Captain Michael McGrath Memorials, Longport


8:Cape May County Championships, Wildwood Crest


10: Longport Women’s Invitational


12: Beschen Callahans, North Wildwood, 6pm


13: Ocean City Masters Swim, 10am


19: Atlantic City Classic


20: Sea Isle City 1-Mile Ocean Swim, 11am


23: Tri Resorts, Upper Township, 6:15pm


25: Ocean City Women’s Race, 6:15pm


26: Dutch Hoffmans, Wildwood


28: Kerr Memorials, Avalon, 6:15pm


30: Six Mile Bay Race,

Upper Township, 6pm



2: Margate Memorials


3: Sea Isle City 10-mile Island Run, 5:30 pm


9: South Jersey Championships, Longport

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