By Donald Wittkowski
Mark Jamieson isn’t sure how many swimmers he has saved during his nearly 20 years as an Ocean City lifeguard, but there is one rescue that stands out in his mind.
In 2004, a big wave and strong winds pushed about 30 or 40 swimmers out to a jetty on the Ninth Street beach, putting all of them in severe danger. A mass rescue involving about 25 lifeguards ensued. When it was over, everyone was pulled to safety.
“It was one of those rescues that was exhausting,” recalled Jamieson, who ended up with some cuts and bruises from brushing up against the jetty rocks.
Jamieson points to the rescue not as a personal achievement, but rather as an example of the dedication, skill and teamwork of the entire Ocean City Beach Patrol.
Over the years, there have been drownings in Ocean City, but they were at beaches that didn’t have lifeguards. No one has drowned at an Ocean City beach protected by lifeguards, Jamieson said.
That perfect record dates all the way back to the founding of the Ocean City Beach Patrol in 1898, he noted.
“It’s one honor we hold near and dear,” Jamieson stressed.
Jamieson, 35, a lifelong Ocean City resident and beach patrol member since 1998, will now be the person primarily responsible for maintaining that honor.
In February, he was named the beach patrol’s new chief, placing him in charge of protecting eight miles of coastline and an estimated 2.5 million to 3 million Ocean City beachgoers each summer.
So, for any “Baywatch” fans out there who think that being a lifeguard is an easy summer gig, consider those numbers – 2.5 million to 3 million people must be protected every year.
“By no means do we take that lightly,” Jamieson said.
Memorial Day weekend provides Jamieson with his first big test as the new chief. On Saturday, he weaved his way through crowds of sunbathers lining the 12th Street beach, giving him a sense of what the rest of the summer will be like if the weather holds out.
“A day with a cool ocean breeze is the perfect remedy for Ocean City day trips,” Jamieson said on an afternoon that featured partly sunny skies and temperatures in the low 70s.
In his role as chief, Jamieson will oversee 170 employees, one of the biggest beach patrols in New Jersey and the largest in Cape May County. He will be paid an annual salary of $30,000.
He said he doesn’t plan to make any major changes in operations, but will emphasize training and safety certification for all lifeguards. Above all else, he plans to carry on the beach patrol’s tradition of teamwork.
“I’m not a ‘me person.’ I’m not a ‘you person.’ I’m an Ocean City Beach Patrol person,” he said.
Capt. Brian Booth, one of Ocean City’s longest-serving lifeguards, said Jamieson has gotten the beach patrol fully prepared for the busy Memorial Day weekend and the rest of the summer.
“The guys have confidence in him to make the decisions that are in the best interest of the beach patrol and the city,” Booth said.
Booth, 46, a 32-year veteran, explained that the lifeguards were happy when one of their own was named to head the beach patrol.
“We were comfortable and familiar with him, instead of having someone new and from the outside who we didn’t know,” he said.
Booth has served as head coach of the boys swimming team at Mainland Regional High School for 20 years. He recalled seeing Jamieson the first time when Jamieson was a member of the Ocean City High School swim team. Jamieson has brought his competitive nature as a swimmer with him to the beach patrol.
“He’s got a tremendous work ethic. He works very hard,” Booth said. “He deserves everything he’s gotten.”
Jamieson is a 2000 graduate of Ocean City High School. He graduated from Montclair State University and holds a master’s degree from Walden University. He works as a physical education teacher and boys and girls swimming coach at Egg Harbor Township High School.
Jamieson succeeded Tom Mullineaux, who retired in November after 16 years as chief and 51 years on the beach patrol. His promotion to chief capped a career that saw him rise through the ranks as a senior lifeguard, training officer and senior lieutenant.
Lifeguarding runs in Jamieson’s family. He’s had uncles and cousins who were lifeguards at the Jersey Shore.
He chuckled at the stereotypes of lifeguards created in popular culture, including the campy “Baywatch” franchise that made David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson TV icons in the 1990s and has now hit the big screen, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the starring role, just in time for the summer.
Jamieson hasn’t seen the new “Baywatch” movie yet, but he and some other lifeguards plan to catch the film sometime soon.
“We’ll all go and watch that film and get a laugh out of it,” Jamieson said.