Where They Made Their Bones

A Memorial of Sea Isle’s Bowen Brothers

Author’s Note: An edited version of this article was submitted (and from what I’ve been led to believe) and accepted in a soon to be published edition of American Lifeguard Magazine.

Renowned for their dedication to professional lifeguarding, Joe and Hugh “Hughie” Bowen earned the appropriate title of career lifeguards as they guarded year round. Spending their summers on Sea Isle City, New Jersey’s patrol, and winters on Hollywood, Florida’s lifeguarding staff, they made the job their lives.

Their love of lifeguarding kept them on the beach. The brothers saw it so important to guard the beaches that Joe, a champion swimmer, declined a full scholarship to La Salle College in order to guard all year. Their dedication to the career brought them to captaincy at both patrols— Hughie in Hollywood with Joe as his lieutenant, while Joe became captain in Sea Isle with his brother as lieutenant. This did not exempt them from sitting the stand, however, as they voluntarily sat up educating younger guards for another 20 years; their roles of administration were emphasizing to rookies how to lifeguard well, and how to pass it on correctly.

“Instinct,” Alma Bowen, Joe’s widow, claims was the edge they gained from guarding year round. 1Her favorite memories of her husband and his brother were of when they “…spotted people anywhere, [victims] nobody else spotted. And when you asked them how they knew about that victim, they would just reply ‘instinct’.”

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July 11th, 2016 marked the one year anniversary of Joe’s passing, as well as the 97th celebration of Sea Isle’s Beach Patrol formation in 1919. Comrades from the Bowens’ youth once again took up oars and paddle boards, accompanied by the recent generation of guards, as they scattered Joe’s ashes out among the waters of 43rd street.

“Their real criteria was water safety,” Tom Feaster, former bow man for Hughie, claimed they valued. “They were good in not just the boats but also as water watchers.”

Wreaths of Irish flowers loaded in the Van Duynes were tossed out to encircle the ashes, while the paddlers sent the salt water toward the sky, as homage to the former lifeguards. A large portion of the Bowen family watched from the beach as their ancestor was sent back to the ocean in which he so often immersed himself, only this time, to watch as Joe and the sea became one.

“[Joe] always wanted a Viking funeral,” commented Alma. Though the scattering of his ashes was not what Joe may have exactly wanted, she believes he would have understood the limitations the city had.

The crowd at the ceremony did not only pay respect to the Bowen brothers’ life in guarding, but also to the strength of their familial bonds. “The Bowen family represents a model of [what] family [should be],” spoke Bill Handley, captain of Sea Isle’s neighboring patrol Upper Township. Most of those in ceremony’s attendance had been good family friends, keeping close as to emulate the Bowen’s strong family core.

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“Safety for our family,” was what Catie and Mason Castle claimed their grandfather Hughie always advocated. They never left the beach when they were younger, so Hughie had impounded into them safety was paramount not just as a lifeguarding trait, but a familial one. 

Family is an incredibly strong bond emphasized in lifeguarding. Offspring will take over where their parents once guarded, or younger siblings will guard in their elder’s stead once they come of age. Visitors and first timers to the island and the job have more interactions on and off the stand with strangers they call ‘partner’ than their actual blood, and from those countless hours comes an affection for fellow lifeguards which makes one feel their co-workers are a family away from true family. Captain Handley himself had his daughter, a younger guard at Upper Township, present in order to learn of the importance of family Joe and Hughie displayed. So when blood relations come to work together on Sea Isle’s patrol, as the Bowen brothers did, there is a bond seen with reverence by other guards.

The Bowen brothers legacy, Tom McCann states, “…is public safety. They never had a drowning on their watch. Both of them were trailblazers in their own right. They learned lifeguarding the right way, no matter what other ways were taught.”

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Joe and Hughie had guarded in many places and saved lives all over the east coast, but Dr. Joseph Larosa, former Sea Isle City Beach Patrol Hall of Fame Inductee, insisted it was right to have Joe’s ashes scattered in the waters of 43rd street. “They may have spent their winters in Florida,” Dr. Larosa recalled, his words heavy with unspoken memories of the Bowen brothers as he watched his son row out to toss flowers. “But they made their bones in Sea Isle.”

Much time has passed since the Bowens worked in Sea Isle, but their legacy can still be seen today. Despite the many changes in lifeguard culture in the current day, holding public safety beyond all other priorities is memorialized day to day in Sea Isle and all patrols they contributed to. ns-monogram1

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