Volume 7, Number 1, 1997

At 82, champion swimmer still guards the shore

Fenton Carey, HN '38, has been swimming in the ocean waters off the Jersey shore for more than 60 years. As a member of the Ocean City Beach Patrol from 1934-41, he protected water babies, young and old. At age 82, he still swims five months of the year a nd, on his daily beach walks, his eyes continue to search the shoreline for swimmers in distress.

Lifesaving has consumed much of Carey's career. In addition to the beach patrol, he has taught water safety, coached swim teams and supervised lifeguards. He won many local, regional and national lifesaving championships, later becoming a successful coach at Ocean City High School. The high school's football field and track stadium are named in Carey's honor and that of his late brother, T. John, HN '36, also a champion swimmer.

"The basic thing about being a good lifeguard is good eyes," says Carey. "An experienced lifeguard knows how far to let the swimmers paddle and how to recognize a 'wash' or riptide." His two sons, Fenton Jr., EG '67, '70M, and Dennis C., AS '71, '73M, bot h served as lifeguards on the beach patrol, as well. Formerly secretary of the Delaware Department of Labor and later vice president for employee relations at UD, Dennis successfully swam the English Channel in 1980.

Although the beach patrol still takes a good set of eyes, alertness, tremendous physical strength and endurance, some things have changed, says Carey.

"Probably the biggest difference is that the beach patrol doesn't use the boats as much as they used to," he says. "Years ago, if you had a crowd in the water, you'd have maybe one guard in the stand and two guards out in the boat.

"In fact, years ago, before we had walkie-talkies, we just used semaphore, a system of visual signaling, to talk back and forth. The guy standing up in the back of the boat might ask, 'Who's the chick in the white suit?,'" recalls Carey, springing out of his chair and waving his arms to demonstrate the visual message. "We got so used to sending messages that way. It's something you never forget."

Lifeguarding was a natural for Carey, whose year-round family home was on the beachfront of Ocean City.

"You grew into it," says the former coach. "It was a prestigious job. Back then, jobs were very scarce."

About 60 guards watched the seven-mile stretch of beach at that time. With a turnover rate of about six guards a summer, the competition for vacancies was fierce. The try-outs lasted five days. "There were 50 types of tests every day," Carey says.

One of those tests included boat handling. Surprisingly, Carey says, getting into the 500-pound boats was one of the most dangerous aspects of the job. Because the brass oarlocks sat upright, a guard had to be careful to clear the oarlocks as he leaped ov er the side to climb aboard.

Moreover, there was a certain acquired skill to handling the oars, which needed to be flipped off the knees like the quick draw of a gun. Carey would know. He helped to win several team rowing championships throughout his career for Ocean City's beach pat rol, including the Atlantic Coast Championship in 1940.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, Carey and his siblings did double duty. During those summer weekends, Carey and his brothers, John and Lewis, were auxiliary police officers. Carey says the older guards often were sworn in as auxiliary police to dir ect weekend traffic before there were traffic lights in Ocean City. The brothers, sporting their dress lifeguard uniform of white shoes, white "ducks" or pants, dark jacket, cap, badge and whistle, would stand in the middle of the street and direct traffi c from 7 to 10 p.m. For that detail, they received an extra $5.

Daily runs and swims were part of the beach patrol detail. For Carey, who played college football and basketball and was captain of Delaware's track team, the workouts presented no problem.

Today, he still works out daily. Besides swimming in the ocean "until I get an ice cream headache" from the cold, he rides his bike five to 10 miles a day when the summer crowd disappears.

Because of his lifesaving background, Carey has been named honorary chairman of the Ocean City, N.J., Beach Patrol Centennial Committee. The celebration will extend over the summer of 1998 to commemorate the early years of professional lifesaving. A perma nent Ocean City Lifesaving Museum and rowing facility already have been established.

-Paula Kelly, HN '76