(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 — When Tom Yates went for a quick swim in the ocean one day, he had no idea that it would end up changing his life.
Tom had grown up in Anne Arundel County being a competitive swimmer. From his early days at the pool to the AACC swim team, he was always practicing or racing. His family would take him to the beach during the moments he wasn’t in the pool doing laps, and Tom would spend his time swimming through the surf. Swimming was what he knew.
But, as he got older, he also knew that swimming was not going to pay his bills. So, Tom found work with a construction company that did a lot of work up and down the coast. “We would come down for three or four days at a time and stay at Rehoboth Beach. I’d stay with my family, or if things were too chaotic, I’d stay over with my boss at his place.” Tom had some free times during those work weeks and would take the opportunity to swim whenever he could. It was the summer of 1981. One week, “while I was working a construction job up in Dewey, I took a break.” While relaxing in Ocean City, he decided to take a swim.
“I came out of the water in front of the Golden Sands condominium, and the guard yelled down to me, ‘Tom Yates?’ I looked up and said ‘Mark Acton’?” he recalled.
It was in fact the “friend of a friend” that Tom had known for some time. After some talk about small worlds, Mark told Tom about how great a time he was having working on the Ocean City Beach Patrol. Mark concluded, after seeing what a good swimmer he was, that Tom had to join the patrol as well.
The next year, Tom talked his family into renting him the cramped lower floor apartment of their house on 11th Street. His friend Mark joined him and the summer of 1982 began. Tom passed his OCBP test and immediately began guarding. It was a great summer. His crew was within walking distance of his house and Tom enjoyed guarding the crowded downtown beaches where there was always a lot of action, and more than a few stories.
Tom remembered one afternoon when a girl “who looked like she’d been in a fight the night before, began climbing up my stand to ask if I had an ashtray up there. All I could come up with was ‘sorry, no’,” he remembered. Tom even found time to go fishing off of the Route 50 Bridge where “quite a few times I brought home dinner.”
Tom returned for the summer of 1983 and was assigned to 9th Street. Because of the Beach Replenishment Project going on in Ocean City at the time, “they had put a brand new rock jetty in front of my stand. Every time there was a rough day, I had to race in to get people before they crashed into the rocks, by taking them outside and around the jetty. I called it ‘making the loop.’ Then I’d have to get back in time to get the next one. It was just like a conveyor belt.”
On one particularly bad day, with waves crashing over the jetty in rapid succession, Tom had one of his more memorable rescues.
“I had to go for this girl who was heading straight for the rocks. I told her to hang onto the buoy while I backstroked with all my might to get us around the jetty,” he said. “Waves kept crashing over us pushing us into the rocks, and each time they did, the girl began to lose her top. So, she’d let go of the buoy to readjust her suit and I would have to stop and wait. I told her, ‘you’ve got to stop letting go.’ I actually pushed off the rocks with my foot as the last wave was breaking over us. We made it safely in, but she just about killed us.”
Tom left Ocean City that fall to attend school at Towson and to join the swim team there. The training he’d get would keep him ready for his return to the OCBP the next summer. Tom even had his new house situation ready to go. “I had a place lined up with 8 girls,” he said. However, this didn’t sit well with his girlfriend at the time, who talked him into staying home that summer and just guarding on the weekends.
“Worst decision I ever made,” said Tom with regret. He was still able to get back on the beach and guard a few days a week. In that time, he found the opportunity to swim for the growing OCBP competition events. As for the girlfriend, they broke up not long afterwards.
Tom still returns to the beach with his family whenever he can. The time that he spent on the OCBP was a life changing time. He made a lot of friends and had a lot of adventures. And all of it was due to a chance encounter on a particular beach after a random swim.
Tom Yates put his construction training to work and became a carpenter and a professional sculptor. He now lives on Kent Island. Swimming still remains a passion for him., and he’s been coaching teams for the past 22 years.