The Ocean City Beach Patrol mans 10 miles of beach every summer from the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend to Sunfest Weekend, which is usually the third weekend after Labor Day. The OCBP guards are on duty every day from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and as the old adage goes, beach-goers should always “keep your feet in the sand ’til the lifeguard’s in the stand.” The waters can be rough. On certain weekends this summer, there have been up to 300 rescues over the span of three days.
OCBP members train vigorously before each summer to ensure the swimmers and beach-goers of Ocean City remain safe. They’re trained to navigate rip currents and heavy surf, to watch for swimmers who are too far out and for lost children wandering the beach, and to perform CPR and other first aid as needed. It is estimated that in a typical season, the Patrol goes to the rescue of about 2,500 bathers, handles 1,000 lost children, and is called on for first aid about 500 times.
Crew Chief Steven DeKemper is one of those Ocean City Beach Patrol guards, and has been for the last 15 years. He’s from Indiana — in fact, he still lives in Indiana, where he works as a special education teacher — though his mother is from College Park, and he grew up spending plenty of summers on the beach in Ocean City.
In 2003, while studying education at Indiana State University, DeKemper found himself in Ocean City, speaking with a guard who had been spending his summers on the Beach Patrol for the past six years. He decided he’d give it a try, thinking his term on the Beach Patrol would be a one-summer deal. Obviously, the universe had other plans. This is one OCBP member’s personal story from the stands, where he looks out over the sea and the sand daily at 127th Street.
Photos by William Strang-Moya.
Do you live in Ocean City full-time?
I still commute from Indiana every year. I’m a special education teacher there and I come down here in the summer. Every year seems to be a little different, right now I’ve been hooked up with a buddy of mine for the past four summers, so it kind of works out well. We’ll have to see. Eventually I’ll have to grow up and buy a place down here.
What’s the difference between a regular guard and a Crew Chief?
As far as the duties go, a lot of them are very similar… Being a lifeguard out on the beach and taking care of everybody. But on top of that, you do a lot more paperwork, sometimes you’ll be assigned duties as far as supervision, things like that.
You’re expected to kind of be a mentor, work with the younger guards and things like that. I’m lucky enough that I have some crew members here such as Megan, who has 12 years of experience, people I can roll ideas off of. I’ve got a great assistant, so it really works out well. You’re supposed to be a mentor role to the assistant, but I’ll tell you what, she’s on it. Emma’s my assistant, she’s two stands down.
What does a typical day on the Beach Patrol look like for you?
You know, that’s one thing I like about being a part of the Ocean City Beach Patrol: Every day’s different. Today we’ve got big surf, strong rips. Yesterday we ended up with near 200 rescues — that’s not a typical day, and on certain days there’s hardly anything to do.
Each day brings it own set of unique attributes. You could have things that you’re dealing with on the beach, anything from CPR to unfortunately search and recoveries. A typical day is maybe making a rescue or two and, you know, just staying alert.
I shouldn’t say — that’s not every day, but this year’s definitely been more [rescues] than most!
What’s the number one cause of needing to perform a rescue?
The rip currents are by far the number one rescue. I’ll be honest, aside from that I guess heavy surf, things like that once in awhile. But I’d say 90% of our rescues are from rip currents. And that’s a made-up statistic, but still.
You can see right here, we’ve got one in front of us. Luckily we don’t have anybody in there. And they’ll move, sometimes you’ll get a fixed rip, sometimes you’ll get rips that’ll move with the currents a little bit. Those are the ones that are harder to keep people out of.
Don’t people know by now to swim parallel to the shore when they’re caught in a rip current?
It’s harder to see when you’re in it, I think that makes it a little more difficult. But people should always look for the plume of light at the top, the sediment on the bottom coming up, you get discoloration, maybe even a darker color in a deeper spot — those are some things you should really look for when it comes to rip tides.
What’s kept you coming back to the Beach Patrol every summer for 15 years?
One, probably the people. You develop some of your best friendships, some of my best friends I’ve worked with here for the past 15 years or so on the Beach Patrol.
And two, the job, it’s unique. Maybe not to someone from around here, but coming from home, it’s totally different. I’ve become addicted to the ocean.
Coming out here for these three-and-a-half months gets me through the year. And each day is unique, you could have a busy day with lots of rescues or you could have a very slow day. And I’d say your hardest days are when it’s cold, windy and you’re guarding seagulls, there’s no people on the beach. Those are your hardest days, because the days are so long. Like Saturday… that was a long day.
Will you come back next year?
Yeah, I plan on it. I enjoy the job too much to give it up. If I can make it work, I’ll be here.