(Editor’s Note: The following is a series on the men and women who have spent their summers protecting all those who came to Ocean City for fun and safe vacation.)
OCEAN CITY – It’s often the case in life that perceptions of people change and that first impressions are not always the one you end up with. This certainly was the case with Steve Buckman, who joined the patrol in the summer of 1982.
Buckman’s older brother, John, had already been a guard for several years by this time and so he came on already well acquainted with the job. Most of the guards on the OCBP knew Buckman as a soft-spoken fellow who was ready for the challenges that came with guarding. He was cool headed and extremely efficient, and few were surprised when he was made crew chief at the Middle Inlet in 1984.
Guarding in the Inlet is considered to be one of the toughest beaches to work. A wrong move or a bad current could mean that you were making a rescue through the pier to the north or facing the prospect of being swept out to sea in the south. Lt. Mike Stone still recalls “how many people were on the beach between the rock-pile and the pier and the three sets of semaphore flags Buckman had placed in the sand to keep the area in front of his stand clear. Otherwise he’d never be able to make it to the water.”
Buckman maintained order there, quietly and efficiently. For most guards, that would be the whole story. But not for him.
By the early 80’s, Captain George Schoepf had brought the OCBP into the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA). The patrol had became a part of an organization that not only fostered the exchange of ideas and techniques nationwide, but had a deep culture of competition. Guards from all over the country would meet to race, row and swim against each other and then go on to compete against the best guards from all over the world. These meets had all sorts of events, but the star of the show was always beach flags.
Beach flags is a game that answers the simple question “who is the fastest person on the beach”? Ten guards lay in a line face down in the sand. Several yards away are nine “flags” (foot long pieces of rubber garden hoses with the tops painted yellow for extra visibility). A whistle is blown and the 10 race for the flags. The guard who doesn’t get one is out and the next round starts with one less flag. It’s musical chairs, only in the sand with a lot more contact.
Lt. Ward Kovacs tells the story about beach flag tryouts from that summer. The way morning tryouts worked were that if you finished top three, you would automatically be scheduled off so you could attend the Mid-Atlantic Lifeguard Championships to compete and represent the OCBP. If you placed top three at Mid-Atlantics, you would have the opportunity to compete and represent the OCBP at Nationals. Steve “Sony” Nelson had won the USLA National Beach Flag event in both 1982 and 1983 for the patrol and had gone on to win the World Championship Beach Flag event held in South Africa.
Buckman quietly decided he would give this event a try and put himself to work training.
Kovacs recalls, “Steve Nelson was the two-time defending USLA National Champion, as well as the reigning World Champion in beach flags. That summer the competition was so tough that Steve Nelson did not even finish top three at the OCBP morning tryouts. The winner was none other than Steve Buckman. He went on to win Mid-Atlantic’s and the Rehoboth Olympics that summer as well as winning Nationals in San Clemente, Calif. And then he did it again the next two years in Chicago (1985) and Galveston (1986).”
Those who previously only knew Buckman as the soft spoken, no nonsense guard on the toughest beach in Ocean City, now knew him as the fastest guard in the world.
Buckman lives in Berlin with his wife and two daughters and operates Assateague Farm. When he’s not busy tending to his farm operation, he still finds time to train new generations of beach flag competitors for the OCBP.