OCEAN CITY, MD. -- Picture the scene: sandy hot dogs, a beach full of pink nylon bikinis and streaked blonds, the smell of coconut oil and artificial banana, and 200-watt custom stereo speakers blasting out Bananarama's "Venus" and Madonna's "Where's the Party?"

The place was Ocean City, the beach behind the Carousel Hotel, and the event was the Sixth Annual United States Lifesaving Association's 1987 Molson Mid-Atlantic Regional Surf Lifeguard Championship, the Mason-Dixon Classic, with 252 lifeguards.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 spectators showed up one day this week, including Joanne Kleiderlein, 19, of Baltimore, working this summer at the Ocean City Benetton store as a clerk. "Just laying on the beach gets boring," she said. "I came to watch the competition, and we've got the music, so it's like a little party."

This must be what the Beach Boys have been singing about for all these years: a beach full of the bronzed, fit and beautiful, AT THE BEACH Another in a series of occasional articles with no cellulite, no lumpy complexions, no stomach rolls.

And that wasn't even the lifeguards. For them the competition was serious: no surf-side strutting, no muscle flexing, no oiled biceps or triceps.

The guards came from 21 beaches, including New Jersey's Sea Girt and Avon, Delaware's Bethany and Dewey, and New York's Rockaway and Jones.

Kevin Murphy came from Cape May.

His braces flashed in the sun, and he had smeared plenty of white gunk on his lips. When not dashing into the surf he's a sophomore at Philadelphia's Temple University, where he rows on the crew team.

When this summer is over, Murphy will have competed in two national events: one for crew, and the U.S. National Lifeguard Championships, to be held in Honolulu Aug. 6-8. "It's awesome -- yeah," he said.

"It's good to be here," said Cathy Silvia, 18, a guard at New York's Jones Beach, after emerging from the 1,000-meter swim event, water beading off her arms. "The water's a lot clearer than where we're from."

Joe McManus, 35, came from New York's Rockaway Beach. He's a court officer by night, a lifeguard by day. "The reason I stayed with lifeguarding is because I look at the beach as a profession, rather than just a summertime occupation."

"There are few competitions that have such a direct effect on the public as the lifeguard championships do," said Rennie Solomito, brand director of Molson Light, which sponsored six of the 12 events, including the 1,500-meter paddle and the rowing race. "Every task of the competition is based upon skills that these men and women use every day while protecting people on our nation's beaches." Drowning is the third-largest cause of accidental death in the country, the lifesaving association said.

The male and female lifeguards competed in various age categories and in assorted events, such as the two-mile beach run, a relay race in soft sand and a rescue board exercise. Winners automatically qualified to participate in the United States National Lifeguard Championships.

Meanwhile, as the lifeguards paddled, rowed and stroked their way through the surf, the summer-long party on the beach behind them continued. Overhead, light airplanes buzzed, towing banners advertising cold beer, fresh pizza, wine, an Elks festival. A fishing boat puttered by, flashing seafood prices from an electric billboard on the cabin roof.

There was cotton candy, hot gum stuck to sidewalks, shoestring french fries, outdoor mall music, wet 'n' wonderful T-shirt contests, and the Ocean City Battle of the Bars, held every Tuesday.

The beach itself was everything the give-away Jamaica Blend tanning oil hinted at: deep, dark and wild, with lots of gold neck chains, purple and orange reflector sunglasses and T-shirts that read "Cancun" and "Spaceballs."

"I came because I wanted to check out the competition and admire all the pretty girls," said Tim McGivern, 20, of Pittsburgh, who is working this summer as an Ocean City waiter.

Lana Williams, the competition's recording judge, sat next to a stereo speaker, her ears plugged with stuffing. "I can't hear you," she said.

But the rock rolled on.

"Good summer fun," said "Hit Man" McKay, the program director for WKHI-FM radio in Ocean City, who was presiding from a stage on a makeshift trailer.

"For the first time this year, the temperature at the beach is going to hit our frequency -- 100."