Take an acre or so of sand, an ocean breeze and 142 thoroughly tanned and mostly youthful beach worshipers. The result looks a lot like a day in the life of Annette Funicello.
But they never worked this hard in the movies. For seven hours today, lifeguards from five states gathered here to hurl themselves into the very choppy surf, race along one-quarter of a mile of the beachfront and otherwise compete in the United States Lifeguard Association's mid-Atlantic competition. The Mason-Dixon Classic, as it is also known, attracted the "boys of summer" from beaches from New York to Virginia for a day of gritty, sweaty competition that was torture for some and exhilaration for others.
Nineteen of these competitors were women, and 10 of them were over the age of 38. But most, it seemed, were sun-streaked blonds. All, certainly, were in better physical shape than the majority of the vacationers who lined the beach outside the Carousel Hotel to watch the event under brilliant blue skies.
"Lifeguards love to be here," said Dorothy Cole, a contestant and a teacher from Pittsburgh who spends her summers guarding the shore at Assateague Island. "They feel it's quite an honor to do well."
In order to do well, you have to be a lot like Dave Kawut, an 18-year-old guard from Valley Beach, N.J. Kawut, with teammate Eric Kerecman, 17, won a rescue race event in which one partner swam a quarter of a mile into the surf to haul out the other and tow him or her back to shore.
Minutes later, Kawut won a second, more grueling race, in which contestants ran, then swam, then ran again before crossing the finish line.
Kawut, a George Washington University student, was the eighth competitor into the water after the first leg of the event, but he was the first to cross the finish line.
"I'm a swimmer," he panted at the finish line. "I made up a lot of time in the water."
Then he sprinted off to race again.
For old-timers like Tom Carey, 35, of Baltimore, and Joe Hoffman, 39, of Long Beach, N.Y., gamboling on the sand with competitors half their ages presented a different challenge.
"For an old guy like me who's not fast, it's hard," said Carey, who breathed a little harder for a little longer than did Kawut.
Hoffman, a social studies teacher who has been a summer lifeguard for 23 years, is prepping his three children to follow in their father's footsteps.
"To me it's not a job, it's a way of life," he said after his four-man team won one event in which they hauled each other out of the surf with a tow rope. "I hope to make it to 55 and then retire from teaching and guarding at the same time."
But contrary to folklore, the job is not all glamor. Ocean City has a beach patrol staff of 138 lifeguards for 10.5 miles of beach to cope with more than 2,200 rescues each year. No one drowned here last summer, guards said.
Eighty-seven of the guards work eight hours each day perched on wooden stands that have no shade. "The sun bakes your brains out for eight hours and you're responsible for 200,000 or 300,000 lives," said George Schoepf, the patrol's white-haired captain.
Chazz Chiamardas, a radio account executive who guarded Ocean City beaches for six years before retiring to what he calls a "real job," said that the stone jetties that project into the water along the shoreline often make swimming here more dangerous than it is at other beaches.
"There are so many different things you have to contend with," he said. "It's not like just diving into a pool."
But for all the risks, there are a few benefits. Scott McIntyre, a 24-year-old guard from Annapolis, paddled an oversized surfboard, ran along the beach and swam in the surf in competition today, all with an ankle he sprained rescuing a group of children on a day off last week.
"A lot of people think you're just sitting here watching the pretty girls," he groused to Mark Walsh, 23, from Gaithersburg. "Of course there have got to be some side benefits," Walsh said matter-of-factly.