(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 – Growing up in Wilmington, Del., Al Kempski could have easily found himself vacationing somewhere along the Jersey Shore. But as with so many of the men and women who find themselves guarding the beaches of Ocean City, a chance encounter would change the direction of his life and lead Kempski to a four-summer career with the OCBP.
After graduating from high school, he had enrolled in the University of Delaware. Among the people he met there was Bill Baker, who not only was living in the same dorm as Kempski, but was also an officer on the Ocean City Beach Patrol. It was 1977 and Baker was impressed by Kempski’s dedicated swim schedule. “I would swim everyday with Bill. He recommended I write to Captain Craig and request a tryout,” Kempski remembered.
Always on the lookout for new talent, especially when it came with an endorsement by one of his officers, the captain wrote back and offered Kempski a test date in May.
Kempski continued on his swim regimen, unaware of just what an OCBP test in May would be like. It is hard to describe the toll that swimming in ocean waters with temperatures hovering in the low 60’s can have on the body. When Kempski took the test, it wasn’t just a matter of swimming from the rock pile to the pier in 10 minutes or less. It was a series of runs and simulated rescues, over and over, designed to weed out anyone not willing to give everything they have. Kempski showed up for “the Alaska swim with 50 other freezing applicants. Passed. Exhausted and elated.”
Kempski loved the job and the camaraderie of the patrol.
“The OCBP was and is a very special, merit based organization. Everyone is an equal. You always have each other’s back,” he recalled.
Each summer he got better at his job and when he started his third season in 1981, he was promoted to crew chief. He taught his guards to trust their instincts without hesitation. It was better to go in early for a rescue than to wait until it became a disaster later. This philosophy of guarding worked well for him stationed in front of the densely packed beaches of “condo row” in the north, where crowds of thousands would routinely show up on any given day.
It was on these packed beaches that Kempski would face his biggest challenge.
“The worst rescue happened after Labor Day in 1981. Guards were so far apart you needed binoculars to semaphore with the next guard. There was a hurricane off the coast,” he remembered. “It was sunny and the water was churning huge waves with rips everywhere. It was one of those 20-plus pull (rescue) days. Three men were caught in a rip about 500 yards south and they were being pounded by the waves. By the time I got to them they were face down, bobbing for air. We were 30-40 yards offshore. I swam and got two of them on my buoy when the third man grabbed me from behind in a head lock. A wave crashed on us and we went under. Somehow he let go. I hit bottom with my feet and pushed up to the surface. I put them all on my buoy and pulled them to the shore where their wives and families met us with towels and tears.”
Kempski would guard one more summer before heading off to join the “real world,” but not before teaching his guarding techniques to at least a dozen future crew chiefs.
Al Kempski currently lives in the DC metro area and works for the FDA. He’s been married to his wife, Janine for 34 years, and they have two sons.