Introduction to Lifeguarding & the History and Development of Professional Lifeguards

Written by 1st Lieutenant Skip Lee, OCBP

It is easy to understand that during the late 1700s, the North American coastline was very different from what it is today. Vast portions of the coast were totally uninhabited. What population there was showed little interest in the type of open water recreation that we enjoy today. Instead, the people of the 18th century worked hard constantly to put food in their mouths and clothing on their backs, basic necessities that most of us take for granted. Yet loss of life due to drowning along the nation’s coast was a serious problem, even in the 1700s. The cause of that problem was shipwrecks.

In today’s world of radar, LORAN, navigational aids, and propeller power, news of shipwrecks is considered somewhat of a novelty. But in the early days of the nation, ships were navigated by compass, sextant, and educated guesses, and were always at the mercy of nature. The end of many storms brought the evidence of tragedy at sea – wreckage and lives lost.

The first records of organized efforts to provide assistance for victims of this type of drowning come from the Massachusetts Humane Society. In 1789, the Society began building refuge houses along the Massachusetts coast for survivors of shipwrecks. In 1807, the Society set up the nation’s first lifeboat station on Cape Cod.

In 1839, a New Jersey physician, Dr. William A. Newell, witnessed a shipwreck tragedy near Long Beach, New York, and watched as 13 people drowned trying to swim 300 yards to safety. The doctor remembered this tragedy, and later when he became a congressman, helped persuade the U.S. government to get involved in lifesaving. In 1848, Congress appropriated money to build and equip eight small lifeboat stations along the New Jersey coast.

But while Congress provided the equipment, it did not provide for manpower. Keys to lifeboat stations were left with volunteers who, following a list of printed instructions, were expected to rig and use the equipment to save people on ships foundering in a storm. This type of service did have some success, recording some 4,163 saves, but because the coast was largely uninhabited, many shipwrecks went undetected. Tragedies were still discovered when people came out of their houses on mornings following storms. Unmanned lifeboat stations were also vandalized and soon fell into disrepair.

Congress realized these problems, and in 1854 appropriated more money to hire a superintendent and staff each lifeboat station with one attendant. Lifeboat stations were also brought closer together to provide for uninterrupted coverage of the coastline. Patrols were organized, and the station attendants were often expected to walk the coastline all night, regardless of the weather, to detect shipwrecks.

After the Civil War, Congress spent more money on the lifeboat station system, increasing crews at each station and adding to stations’ size and comfort facilities. The professionalism of the system grew too, as strict regulations were set for competence, performance, routine, beach patrols, and physical conditioning. More stations were built, and during the 1870’s, the system was expanded to cover the coast from Maine to Florida, as well as areas on the Great Lakes. Later, portions of the Gulf and West Coast were included. In 1878, the system became a separate agency of the Treasury Department and was officially called the U.S. Lifesaving Service.

The U.S. Lifesaving Service continued to protect the nation’s coastline until 1915, and between 1871 and 1915 amassed a fine record — 28,121 vessels aided and 178,841 people saved. In 1915, the service was merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and became what is known today as the United States Coast Guard.

During this period in American history, society began to change. America was growing, and Americans were becoming more prosperous and less dependent on constant work for survival. The concept of recreation began to take hold for a growing number of people who had enough money to afford it and enough time to enjoy it. Americans were beginning to realize that recreational swimming, once widely thought to be a sure cause of death, was an enjoyable pastime. Beach resorts began to spring up along the coast and on lakes, and governments began to acquire beach front property or guarantee the right of public access for the specific purpose of recreation. By the 1890’s, open water swimming was all the rage.

Americans quickly found, however, that swimming was not without risk. Newspapers buzzed with reports of drownings in the recreational setting, particularly where incidents claimed several lives in a storm surf or rip current. In reaction, beach resorts began to hire especially good swimmers to “guard” the beach. Local governments, spurred on by public pressure, also began to hire lifeguards for work along publicly owned or controlled beaches. These lifeguards were quick to adapt the equipment and techniques used for years by the U.S. Lifesaving Service to save the lives of swimmers in distress.

Still, there were drownings. Commodore Wilbert E. Longfellow became very disturbed at news of drownings in the recreational setting where no one was able to assist victims. In 1914, he formed the Life Saving Service of the American Red Cross; a corps of volunteers recruited and trained to provide rescues at beaches not regularly patrolled by lifeguards. Not satisfied that this was the solution to the drowning problem, Commodore Longfellow recruited the strongest swimmers from the Corps to teach swimming to beach visitors. He began a program to “Waterproof America” by teaching people to swim, and by training lay people in the skills that they could use to rescue a drowning person. His slogan, “Everyone a swimmer, every swimmer a Lifesaver” became the motto of early Red Cross programs that taught swimming, water safety and lifesaving to many children and adults.

Another organization, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), also became concerned with recreational drownings and became active with the concept of lifesaving, or preparing lay people with the skills necessary to rescue bathers in trouble. The YMCA entered into the lifesaving field between 1885 and 1890, and established the United Volunteer Lifesaving Corps in 1890 to provide rescue service at beaches and pools not staffed with lifeguards. In 1911, lifesaving work and research was established at the YMCA’s national college in Springfield, Massachusetts. The National YMCA Lifesaving Service was organized in 1912. The first published American book on lifesaving was written as a thesis at Springfield College by George Goss in 1913, and was eventually published as a lifesaving textbook in 1916. This book was first promoted as “Water First Aid.”

Meanwhile, professional open water lifeguard services continued to spring up across the United States. There was, however, little continuity in these services, largely due to a lack of a national organization charged with setting standards for the new profession. This fact is surprising, because it appears that the United States was practically the only country in the developed world that did not align its lifeguard agencies within a national organization. In other countries, especially those of the British Commonwealth, lifesaving “societies” were chartered, and were mandated to set standards for lifeguard operations. In some areas, these societies actually supervised and ran lifeguard operations, regardless of who owned or had responsibility for the open water recreation site. The U.S. government, however, did not charter or mandate such an organization, and lifeguard professionals did not start one themselves. In fact, the pioneering organizations in the related field of lifesaving declined to get involved in professional lifeguarding, as those organizations contended that their programs were intended to promote safe swimming and provide training in personal rescue techniques for lay people, not paid professionals. Lifeguard services did improve, however, using techniques that evolved from the U.S. Lifesaving Service body of knowledge being developed through the lifesaving programs of the American Red Cross and other professional emergency services, including police and fire departments. By the end of the 1930’s, lifeguards had become a common sight at many beaches across the United States.



Until about 1930, beach goers were concentrated at Caroline Street in front of the United States Coast Guard station in Ocean City, Maryland. This was the block where beach goers could rent suits at the Showell Bathhouse. It was also where Coast Guard members in their boardwalk tower watched over bathers, as well as ships at sea.

Former Beach Patrol Captain Bob Craig, would talk of how there was a big double jetty about a block away. It was constructed of wooden pilings with crossbars between, and people kept getting caught between the poles, requiring numerous rescues.

The surf washed right up to, and often under, the boardwalk at that time. In 1930, the beach had gotten so narrow that bathers began moving up the beach beyond North Division Street and out of the visual range of the Coast Guardsmen in the tower. William W. McCabe was the mayor then, and he and Captain William Purnell of the Coast Guard organized the original Ocean City Beach Patrol. It began with one man, Edward Lee Carey, who was hired to watch over the beach where the crowd was. He was the son of Savannah Carey, whose mother owned the Del-Mar Hotel on North Division Street. The Patrol developed year by year. New men were added and supplied with buoys for rescues, first-aid kits, and umbrellas.

Some early members of the patrol were John Laws, whose family had a cottage next to the Del-Mar Hotel; Nick Lampofrea, an All-American Football Player for the University of Maryland; Ned and Tommy Dukehart (Tommy later became a sportswriter for the Baltimore Sun); hometown boys Milton and George Conner; Gary Todd of Salisbury; Barney McCabe (the mayor’s son); Franklin (“Cutie”) and Emory (“Huck”) Savage; and Bill Pacy of Baltimore.

In 1935, two names of special significance appeared on the roster for the first time. One was Harry W. Kelley, later to become Ocean City’s most widely publicized mayor. The other was Bob Craig, the genial, six-foot man who remained with the patrol until 1987 when he retired as Captain, having served as Captain since 1946.

Bob Craig was born and reared in Wilmington, Delaware. Ocean City had always been an important part of his life. His father was a schoolteacher, and the family spent the summers in a cottage at the beach. He married a young woman from nearby Berlin, Virginia Lee Mason.

After attending the University of Pennsylvania, receiving an undergraduate degree with a major in languages and a master’s degree in education, he still returned every summer to Ocean City to be on the Beach Patrol.

Craig’s teaching career was in St. Louis, where he taught languages and mathematics to high school students and coached football, basketball, tennis, and golf. He and his wife settled into a year-round home in, of course, Ocean City. He remained Captain of the Beach Patrol, and once described himself as “probably the longest-term employee the city has ever had.”

Since Bob Craig started on the Patrol, it has grown to about 200 members. The guard towers continued their advance up the beach as the resort developed. Today, the Patrol covers ten miles of beach, from the inlet to the Maryland-Delaware line. It is equipped with four-wheel drive trucks, ATVs, personal watercraft, 800 mhz radios, and the familiar semaphore flags.

One of the most notable changes in the Beach Patrol has been the presence of female lifeguards on the lifeguard stands. The first female lifeguard was hired in 1977.

Women have come a long way since the 1930’s, when the late Betty Strohecker Gordy, who worked out with long distance swims up the beach and out swam most of the men on the Patrol, could not be a member. Ms. Gordy, an Ocean City native and later a locally well-known Realtor, was attending Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., at the time. Before her life turned in other directions, she was the regional backstroke champion and was in training for the Olympics. Today, there is no discrimination against women, nor do they receive special consideration in tryouts.

The tryouts and training are grueling. To be under initial consideration, applicants must swim a quarter of a mile in the ocean from the jetty at the Inlet to the fishing pier, keeping their strokes through waves and currents, and must be back on shore in ten minutes or less. As soon as swimmers hit the beach, they must then run in the sand back to the starting point.

Applicants who survive the initial test (most do not) continue from there with a series of simulated rescues with and without a torpedo buoy, run a 300meter course in soft sand in 65 seconds.

Next, there is a test in lifesaving techniques. Candidates must demonstrate the ability to break the grasp of desperate swimmers using several techniques. Patrol members are taught the semaphore flag signals and first aid, and receive CPR training.

The lifeguards learn about treacherous rip currents, the changing ocean bottom, and how far to let flotation devices go out with different winds and tide conditions. They also have to keep an eye out for swimmers who get too close to the long wooden and, more recently, stone jetties that jut out into the surf to help check beach erosion. 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.

Beyond those general qualifications, Patrol members, who are generally between the ages of 18 and 23, must possess the more subtle skills or instincts, to deal with a variety of people. They answer questions, serious and silly, and enforce, as gently as possible, the rules of the beach, prohibiting alcoholic beverages, glass containers, ball-playing, dogs, and loud music.

“A guard needs maturity,” Captain Craig once said, “to be able to tell someone as old as his grandfather that he is breaking the law.” For their services, guards can expect a range of responses, from intense gratitude to indifference, or embarrassment.

For example, a swimmer washed out in a rip current and nearing exhaustion is making no headway getting back through the breakers. The lifeguard swims out and helps the swimmer to shore. Without a word of acknowledgment or thanks, the swimmer walks away as nonchalantly as possible, communicating by his or her manner to anyone who may be watching, that he or she did not really need any help at all. This is one of the most familiar of the small dramas seen by the practiced watcher of a lifeguard on the job.



1785 – Founding of the Massachusetts Humane Society.

1789 – Refuge houses built along the Massachusetts coastline for the survivors of shipwrecks.

1807 – Establishment of the nation’s first lifeboat station on Cape Cod.

1839 – Tragic shipwreck witnessed by Dr. William A. Newell, in which 13 victims attempted unsuccessfully to swim to safety. This event later helped persuade the U.S. government to become involved in lifesaving.

1848 – Eight lifeboat stations built and equipped along the New Jersey coast.

1854 – Staff hired for each lifeboat station; a superintendent was appointed.

1878 – U.S. government bureau of United States Lifesaving Service established.

1890 – United Volunteer Lifesaving Corps established, providing rescue services at pools and beaches not staffed with lifeguards.

1908 – George Douglas Freeth established first lifeguard training at Redondo Beach, California; received the gold medal from U.S. Lifeguard Service for dramatic rescue.

1910 – U.S. Volunteer Lifesaving Corps of New York City hired Commodore Wilbert Longfellow as chief.

1912 – National Lifesaving Service organized.

1913 – Duke Paoa Kanhanamoku introduced redwood surfboard to Long Beach, California; lifeguards for use as rescue equipment.

1914 – Longfellow organized Red Cross Lifesaving Corps.

1915 – U.S. Lifesaving Service merged with Revenue Cutter Service, creating the U.S.Coast

1930 – Ocean City Beach Patrol (OCBP) established.

1933 – Inlet cut through the beach to the bay.

1935 – Captain Robert S. Craig takes command of the season lifesaving operation

1946 – Beach Patrol expands to 18 personnel — three times the size of the original group.

1977 – First females hired as Ocean City lifeguards.

1987 – Robert S. Craig retires as captain of the Beach Patrol and is succeeded by George A. Schoepf. Schoepf served as Assistant Captain under Craig for over thirty years.

1997 – June 11 Captain Schoepf loses his courageous battle with cancer.

1997 – June 12 Lieutenant Melbourne “Butch” Arbin III is appointed Captain by a vote of the Mayor and City Council.

1997 – June 12 Captain Arbin promotes Walter “Skip” Lee to a new position known as 1st Lieutenant.

1997 – July The first OCBP JBP is formed

2005 – April Beach Patrol Webpage goes live.

2006 – June First paid JBP Asst. Inst. position

2006 – September 4 Beach Patrol fills a newly approved full time year- round Lieutenant position with Lt. Ward Kovacs.

2007 – May the Ocean City Development Corporation begins managing a rooming house that is rented exclusively to Beach Patrol employees

2015 – Beach Patrol moves into a State of the Art Beach Patrol Headquarters at 109 Talbot St. leaving behind for demolition the old Police Department on Dorchester St.


Sources of information for were:
USLA Training Manual
Interviews with Ret. Captain Robert Craig (OCBP)
Captain George A. Schoepf (d 1997)