OCEAN CITY – It has often been said that you don’t really know someone until you walk in their shoes. Well, on Sunday, I did just that and those shoes belonged to Ocean City Beach Patrol (OCBP) Crew Chief Jason Konyar.
After spending a full day shadowing Konyar, an eight-year veteran of the OCBP, a second year crew chief and a teacher at local Stephen Decatur High School, my day in the life of a lifeguard crew chief begins at 9:30 a.m. when I meet Konyar at the 27th Street station where he and other crew chiefs are gathered, filling out time cards and preparing for a busy Sunday on the beach. After brief introductions, I hopped in the truck with Konyar to observe the weekly ritual of totaling time cards.
Konyar’s crew is made up of eight guards beside himself, with each working an average of 43.5 hours per week. Upon completion of the time cards, Konyar and I headed off towards the beach. The day would be spent on Konyar’s stand on 29th Street.
Konyar explained that the 29th Street stand was positioned in the middle of his crew, acting as a hub of operations. He has three stands to the north and two stands to the south, making six stands total in his crew. Although most crews maintain five stands, Konyar runs a slightly larger crew.
At 9:45 a.m., we step foot onto the beach. The wind makes itself known immediately, warning us from the beginning that there will be a strong current today.
Konyar brings a bevy of items along with him, including his umbrella, buoy, a bag of essentials including water, towels, extra clothes, semaphore flags, sunscreen, binoculars and the cumbersome paddleboard.
The first thing we do is make an assessment of the wind and currents. Konyar informs me that the northeast wind is blowing 10 to 15 mph with the water moving strong from north to south.
As Konyar pulls forward the lifeguard stand and begins securing it firmly in the sand, he describes the variety of ways that people mess with the lifeguard stands overnight. As an eight-year veteran, Konyar thought he had seen it all, until this year when he arrived on the beach one morning to find no stand in sight. Sure he had arrived in the past to find his stand buried or down by the water, but never completely missing. The missing stand remained a mystery until the Assateague lifeguards radioed headquarters later to announce that an OCBP stand had washed up on their shores.
As he tells the story and sets up for the day, I notice the Konyar has a constant eye on the water. Even though it isn’t 10 a.m. yet and the lifeguards aren’t officially on duty, he is ever watchful of the dozen people splashing in the waves.
We take a minute to fill in the information board located on the back of the stand which provides information on high and low tides, water temperatures and surf beach locations. Once completed, Konyar grabs the binoculars and makes a full survey of the area.
With everything in order, Konyar grabs a large buoy, jumps in the water and proceeds to swim it out past the breaking waves. Assistant Crew Chief Ben Doukas, along with Elyse Daoust, man the stand while he’s swimming, giving Konyar the thumbs up when he has swam far enough. They explain to me that the buoy provides a marker for morning exercises.
Konyar returns and we take position in the stand as morning breaks begin. The morning break consists of a work out, with two guards at a time swimming or using the paddleboard to navigate to the buoy and back. The exercise continues until the half hour break is complete.
At 10:15, the first two lifeguards arrive at Konyar’s stand to perform their morning workout. As the lifeguards struggle against the strong current, Konyar gives me a crash course in rip currents. In front of his stand lies a trough, the area between the shore and the sandbar that feeds the rip current. The waves crash over the sandbar, funneling into the trough and creating a rip current that can pull swimmers off of the sandbar and away from the shore.
To paint a clear picture for me, Konyar points to a girl who is in the potential danger area of rip currents. She moves out of the danger zone, but Konyar explains that had she gone any further he would have blown his whistle and motioned for her to move to shore. Prevention is key, according to Konyar, so keeping an eye out for potentially dangerous situations is vital.
“I really push prevention and education on these guys,” he said. “We really want to educate first and then prevent.”
By educating people of the dangers of the water, and pulling people out of dangerous situations before they occur, Konyar hopes to reduce the number of tragedies.
“A dry guard is a good guard,” Konyar said, explaining that it’s just as important to prevent, as it is to make a save. “It’s not about heroics, it’s about prevention.”
In his first year as a lifeguard, Konyar estimated that he made 70 saves, but he concluded that number has decreased drastically over the past eight years, due to the fact he has become more aware of the potential danger situations and adamant about preventing a situation before it occurs.
As we continue to muse over the duties of the lifeguards and the beach in general, Konyar’s head is on a constant swivel along the shoreline. “It’s all about the eyes, it’s all about what you see,” he explained.
As the lifeguards continue their workouts, Konyar gives me a history of his road to becoming crew chief. Although he is not originally from Ocean City, he has been coming here since he was 8 years old, always fostering a love for the water. In his first trip to OC, he stayed at 31st Street, which would ironically be under his responsibility years later as crew chief.
During his college years, Konyar worked as a lifeguard. Although he failed his first attempt at becoming a member of the OCBP, missing the timed swim by only one minute, he persevered, passing the test with flying colors the following year.
After college, Konyar passed up several opportunities for full time jobs to return to the beach.
“The only thing I truly loved was doing this job,” he said. “I love being outside and looking at this ocean.”
At 10:51 a.m., strong whistle blows coming from the south interrupt us. Konyar jumps up, explaining that the guard on 26th Street has gone in for a rescue. Konyar remains standing until the situation is resolved.
When a guard on 26th Street, abandons the stand for a save, the two neighboring lifeguards, 27th Street and 24th Street, abandon their stands as well to provide backup for the guard in the water. One guard takes over the vacant stand while the other stands on shore, prepared to assist. The abandoned stands are then under the watch of the lifeguards on 29th Street and 22nd Street, who remain standing, covering their water and the neighboring water.
The guards all return to their stands, and Konyar sits down, continuing his story. Konyar explained that after noticing that many of the veteran guards were in education, he decided to look into teaching. He obtained his master in business education from UMES, and eventually found his way to Stephen Decatur’s business department.
“I love it,” he said of his two jobs. “You’ve got to do something you love, something you enjoy.”
It’s after 11 a.m. at this point, and Konyar has jumped up blowing his whistle. I scan the water and notice three guys on the edge of the rip current zone that Konyar pointed out to me earlier. Two of the lifeguards who have just finished their workout in front of Konyar’s stand run over to pull the guys out and explain the dangers of the area.
After making the save, they gather a crowd and hold what they call a impromptu seminar, which is a quick lesson to the people nearby on the dangers of swimming in the area of the rip currents. Despite the lesson, given to about 30 to 40 beachgoers, Konyar is whistling to two people to move out of the area within 10 minutes.
“You can’t always reach everybody,” he said of the seminars, “but you do what you can.”
After taking a half-hour workout break at 11:30, Konyar and I discuss the importance of crew chemistry, particularly when tragedy strikes.
In June, a 27-year-old man, on vacation with his girlfriend, jumped into the water just to the south of Konyar’s stand. Konyar first noticed the man as he was laying face down in the surf. As he ran to the man, his first thoughts were that he was dead, but once he reached him he realized that he had a neck/back injury on his hands. They quickly put the man on the neck board, but Konyar knew it was too late, the man couldn’t move his fingers or toes and had no response to painful stimuli. He had a massive injury to his spine and would spend the rest of his life as a quadriplegic.
Witnessing such an intense tragedy can be hard on anyone, whether you are a seasoned veteran or a second year lifeguard. The crew rallied together, reminding themselves that you can’t prevent every situation.
”Every once in a while you have something tragic like that,” Konyar said, “and it’s hard not to question yourself, but you need to know that you did everything that you could do short of knocking on that person’s door that morning and telling them not to come to the beach today.”
Unfortunately, tragedy struck the same crew two weeks later with the drowning that occurred on 31st Street. Lifeguard Matt Fox was the first responder to the scene. He was well on his way to help the three men that he spotted in trouble in the water when one of the boys was swept off the sandbar. Konyar explained that it could take as little as 10 seconds for someone to slip underneath the surface, making it impossible for Fox to have reached him in time. Although Fox was able to save two of the boys, the crew was not able to reach the third man, 19-year-old Lanham, Md. resident, in time.
“It was hard on everyone, but it was hard for Matt not to question himself. I had to reassure him that he had done all that he could,” Konyar said. “You want every situation to be heroic, but it doesn’t always end that way.”
Shortly before 1 p.m., Konyar and I take a stack of pamphlets and pass them out to families on the beach, informing them that the weekly beach safety seminar would be held in a few minutes. Around 1 p.m., Konyar begins to blow his whistle and call kids and families together to participate in the seminar. A large group gathers full of eager kids and concerned parents. Konyar gives a brief lesson in the safety lessons of the beach, encouraging the kids to participate and rewarding them with OCBP pencils and sunscreen samples.
By 1:20 p.m., we are back in the stand and the whole crew begins alternating turns at ordinance checks in their assigned area. The ordinance checks are a scan of the beach area to make sure that the water isn’t the only area that is safe.
At this point in the day, the crowd is teeming, and the high tide is coming in strong. Although high tide usually doesn’t provide strong pulling rip currents, Konyar explains they are remaining strong today due to the heavy surf.
At 3:25 p.m., a family approaches the stand, panicked because they cannot find their son, Raza, who is 11 years old. Konyar calmly reassures the family that Raza will be found. He puts the description out on the radio and within minutes Raza has been spotted 10 streets away.
It is finally time for us to take a lunch break. I am instantly confused when Konyar runs past me off the beach, but he explains that lifeguards must run while in the sand.
When we return from lunch, Konyar completes the mid-summer evaluations that he began the day before. Four of the guards, one by one, come to the stand to read the evaluations that Konyar gives. He explains to each guard with tact, ways they can improve over the second half of the season, and areas that they have been excelling.
The day nears to an end with the 5 p.m. crew six stretch. With all eyes on the water and lifeguards in their own stands, Konyar leads a group stretch. Just when I think the excitement of the day has ended with people trickling off the beach, Konyar jumps up, blowing his whistle to three young guys in the water. It is 5:20 p.m., 10 minutes before the lifeguards are off duty, but Konyar is running toward the water, diving in to make sure that the swimmers are okay. After getting the swimmers to shore safely, he informs them of the dangers of the rip current area.
As Konyar gathers his mass of lifeguard equipment we make our way off the beach, but not without one last look at the waters, already filling back up with swimmers who will brave the waters without the vigilant watch of the lifeguards.
We return to 27th Street and my day in the life of a crew chief is complete. Exhausted and full of new-fangled information, I leave the beach, carrying with me a new respect for the job and a strong appreciation for one crew chief in particular.