Saving Lives on Their Own Time

Author’s Note: An edited version of this article was submitted for the winter 2017 edition of American Lifeguard Magazine. 

Whether one may be on the watch for a single year or a lifetime, the natural instinct to save lives is ingrained in those who call themselves “lifeguards”. CPR and First Aid will always require refresher courses, and time to train for competition is a daily grind. But once a person enters the world of guarding, spending eight hours a day watching over those in the water, they tend to leave the stand after each shift and season with a regard for others’ safety further enforced in the back of their minds.

For Bill Dougherty, a two year guard in Stone Harbor’s class of 1947 following his service in the Pacific, that ethic was exemplified long after his official watch had ended. During the summer of 1962— over a decade since he had been a lifeguard— Dougherty had been on a walk on the beach while vacationing in his old stomping grounds when a former co-worker called out to him from the stand. He threw his whistle to Dougherty. “We have a swimmer down [in the back bay]! Watch the beaches!” was all the co-worker said before taking off. Dougherty nodded to him, having no problem with helping out, although he had not been a guard for years. And while the entirety of Stone Harbor Beach Patrol left the beach—approximately a two dozen man force at the time— to search for a lifeguard who had been swimming around the bay near the yacht club, Bill guarded the patrons of 94th Street by himself, wearing only jeans and a whistle. He felt a bit ridiculous in the garb, but ultimately relieved he was able to help in a time of distress.

The search ended in a tragedy, with the swimmer found drowned as a result of epileptic seizures, but the one small detail gained from the situation was that there were always those willing to help out on the beach.

img_3795Staircase Showcase: Bill Dougherty in 2016 stands next to a portrait of himself and fellow guards in a Stone Harbor class of 1947 picture. 

“It was a pleasure job,” Dougherty states, describing why he joined the patrol. “They needed an extra guy.” He saw it as a way to keep himself occupied in the summer while attending college, but it ended up being a way to reinforce a furthering both an ideology of his military career and an instinct of wanting to protect people.


Years later, on another island just north, a man of same instinct and first name learned on a morning walk that lifeguarding doesn’t just happen during the work day. The tugboat Big Boy traveling along the coast of Sea Isle City had wandered too close to shore on a June night of 1976. It had been towing an oil rig, the Providence Sun, until it collided with the 47th Street ‘jetty’. The hawser connector fastening the rig to the ship had slipped off the ship and sunk to the bottom of the ocean floor, leaving the load aground and stranded upon the groin.

The biggest danger to the oil rig was how it precariously teetered on the rocks. If it leaned too far, it could have overturned and spilled 25,000 barrels of oil all along the coast of Sea Isle City and beyond.

“If the rig had tipped, it could have been an environmental disaster,” Bill Gallagher claims, remembering his walk on the beach that morning. Captain Gallagher, Lieutenant Michael McHale, Guards Wayne McMurray, and the O’Neal boys— had been on a stroll when they had seen the rig sitting at the edge of the rocks. Without hesitation, they rushed out to help the tugboat, fearing for the safety of the beaches and future patrons rather than the potential harm to themselves.

Flagging down the Big Boy, the group collaborated with the crew to determine where the hawser could have sunk to. They were ready to dive, “until the Coast Guard came and told us ‘Don’t you dare go in the water!’” Gallagher recounted. “If the barge had shifted, we would have been crushed.”

The guards obeyed the Coast Guard, assisting further where they were needed, but none had to dive into rough waters to retrieve the hawser connector. Later, the Board of Commissioners of Sea Isle City commended them with a resolution letter for their willingness to go in the water. Yet it was the right people in the right place at the right time was all the reason that Gallagher, McHale, McMurray and the O’Neals were able to make the rescue of Providence Sun’s oil rig. Glory and recognition wasn’t what urged them to carry out the deed, but their care for their city was their motivation.

img_3790Commissioner’s Resolution: Bill Gallagher and company receive a resolution from the city of Sea Isle commending their selfless bravery. 

Lifeguards spend most of their days seeing a calm beach and ocean, as beachgoers venture the sand and surf in a state of normalcy. When they see an interruption of said normalcy, all of their being suddenly goes into having a need to return to normalcy. From Stone Harbor to Sea Isle— and either way beyond the corner of southern New Jersey—lifeguards spending their days rescuing people will always want to help maintain that normalcy, as saving lives goes from a job to something they’ll do in their own time.ns-monogram1

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