(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 — James Shanklin never gave much thought to the idea of spending his summer in Ocean City and becoming a member of the beach patrol. That changed after the summer of 1976, when his best friend, Mark Spence, returned from the beach and began to tell James all about his adventures guarding. As Mark related his tales of life in the surf, he suggested that James join him the next summer and try out.
“I honestly was not a swimmer.” James recalled. But the stories that he heard made him determined to give guarding in Ocean City a shot. “So in January of 1977, I started with one lap in the pool at Catonsville Community College in Maryland. I went each day, every day and kept building on it, until I was up to a mile a day. And I loved it,” he said.
While he trained, James contacted the beach patrol and informed them of his interest in becoming a guard. “I received my date and time for the test. It was a cold rainy day in May. If I remember correctly the water temp was 53 degrees. As we hit the water my body screamed ‘mistake,’” he recalled. “But we made our way out to the end of the rocks and waited for the whistle and took off. I will admit that the first clump of seaweed to brush over my legs made me think of a Great White looking for a little breakfast.”
James passed the test and began his first year with the Ocean City Beach Patrol. It did not take long for him to begin collecting his own stories; beginning his first week on the stand.
James was sitting on 10th Street when he saw something in the water that “looked like a dead body. I asked Russell Hayman, who was next to me, ‘should we go get it?’ He looked at me, put his head down, and then signaled go, go, go.” James raced into the water and swam quickly to the object “discovering it was a large green garbage bag.” Not knowing what it could be, he began towing it to shore. “The first wave hits, the bag splits, and five million orange peels immediately float out and cover the surface of my entire block. I wanted to disappear, but only after I killed Hayman. For about an hour after that, people kept coming to me asking ‘why did you do that?’ I told them that once every summer we do that to keep the jellyfish away.”
It was quite a way to start his first summer on the stand, but for James, it wouldn’t be the only memorable moment that rookie season. One day, a young teenager found himself floating toward the rock jetty during a heavy surf day. James remembers that “he had fallen off his raft and as soon as I saw him go, I went in. When I reached him, a wave smacked us and forced us closer to the jetty. Another wave was right behind pushing us towards the rocks. I knew we wouldn’t make it out and away from the jetty, so I grabbed him in a bear hug and rolled, keeping myself between him and the rocks. Once we were on the other side of the jetty, we easily made it to shore. On the beach, I asked if he was ok. With a horrified look on his face, he just nodded ‘yes.’ His mom came running over, grabbed him and said to me that she was so sorry. I noticed that she had a similar horrified look on her face. As I started back to my stand, I had the feeling that everyone was looking at me, and all with that same horrified expression. It was just about this point when my entire body started to sting. I realized that it was from hundreds of tiny slices in my skin, made by the mussels and their razor sharp edges, attached to the jetty. I looked down and saw that being wet made me look like I had lost a fight with a paper shredder. It looked much worse than it felt, but it was still pretty embarrassing.”
James survived that momentous first year and went on to guard two more summers in Ocean City. Every year added to the number of stories he could tell, and every story and adventure helped to change his life. “OCBP was one of the best decisions I ever made,” he said. “It helped to shape me into a responsible person and gave me great perspective on life. It taught me to react to the needs of others without hesitation. It taught me that I am capable of doing way more than I think I can.”
James now lives in Los Angeles where he writes and acts. He can be seen in films like “Moneyball” or “Mission: Impossible III” or in TV shows like “Hell on Wheels” and “NCIS: Los Angeles.”