Rehoboth Beach Patrol (RBP) was founded in 1921 with two guards and one line of instruction: “Don’t let anyone drown.”
A century later, a lot has changed—but the mission remains. “Our sweat and awareness keep people safe,” says Scottie James, a former Rehoboth lifeguard who filmed For Life, a 2006 documentary about the RBP. “We’re good at it. We have to be.”
Rehoboth is known for its crowds of tourists, pounding waves, penchant for riptides and award-winning lifeguards. There have been only two drownings on guarded beaches since the RBP’s inception; being a member means being ever vigilant.
“It really isn’t for everyone. It takes a special person,” says Tim Green, who’s been a guard for a decade and is a member of the 100th anniversary committee.
Edward Hill was 15 and the city lamplighter when he was appointed as the first lifeguard. He patrolled up and down the boardwalk looking for people in trouble and pulled them out of the waves, Green says. When interviewed in 2005 at age 99, Hill said he couldn’t remember how many people he’d pulled out of Delaware’s coastal waters— just that he never lost any.
Today, lifeguards must pass a rigorous physical test to even make it to the interview. Guards are expected to be strong, physically and mentally. In 2019, the RBP performed more than 445 major rescues. They also handled 383 medical requests—cuts, splinters, jellyfish stings—and found 345 lost children. That’s all in just a 2-mile stretch of beach.
Former guards have described the job as 80 percent mundane and 20 percent adrenaline, or as Ryan Crowley, 2019 Lifeguard of the Year, puts it, “The coolest thing you could do for a summer job.”
For those who make it, it often becomes a calling. Some put off getting “real jobs” so they can squeeze out one more summer on the stand; some find a way to do both. Either way, many say they’d do it for free. And some practically did.
Today, members of the 65-person patrol earn between $11 and $18 per hour in a 40-hour week. Hill worked seven days a week back in the day and made about $56 a month.
“Talk about commitment. You were glad to have that job. It was a prestigious job,” says John Coveleski, who started guarding in 1968 for $30 a week, with only two days off each month. Back then, the RBP—wearing pith helmets and black swimsuits—picked up trash on the beach in the morning and sold tickets to the Lifeguard Ball in the evening. Ticket sales raised funds for end-of-season bonuses. Still, many guards took second and third jobs to pay for living at the beach.
Dave Frederick says he made more money cleaning rental units on Saturday mornings than he did guarding for the week. Frederick was a teacher with four kids in 1976 when the head coach at the high school, the captain of the RBP, told him his job description included guarding in the summer. At 30, he was the oldest rookie ever, but he felt honored to be part of the patrol.
“When I first saw the Rehoboth lifeguards in red shorts, there was something magical about it,” he recalls.
If guards complained, the captain would tell them to “remember the benefits,” meaning beach, sun and pretty girls. Dozens of former guards credit the beach patrol as the place they met their spouses. And their best friends.
“It’s a tremendous brotherhood,” says Bill Collick, the only African American guard on the patrol in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He was aware of racism in the world, but it did not exist in the RBP. They were all a family, he says, noting that many are still friends today.
The first female lifeguard, Teresa Olewnick, joined in 1970. As of last year, there were 11 women on patrol.
If the RBP is a family, at the top of that tree are the Coveleskis. Four generations of Coveleskis left their mark, with more than 70 years of service. “It wasn’t a matter of if you’d become a lifeguard but when,” John says.
There are two commemorative plaques on the side of the patrol headquarters on Baltimore Avenue: one to Frank “Coach” Coveleski, who served as captain from 1952 to 1968, and the other to his son Tommy “TC” Coveleski, who served 36 years.
Coach Coveleski modernized the beach patrol and set up protocols still used today. He had phones installed at the boardwalk so guards could call for help without having to leave the beach. He also created the lieutenant program, putting senior guards in charge of junior and rookie staff for training and mentorship. Finally, he developed the Cover Down system, so if two guards from one stand were on rescues, guards from other stands would fill in to make sure no section of beach was left untended.
When people talk about Coach, it is usually with reverence.
“He was stern. He was frank. He was a person who dotted his i’s and crossed his t’s,” says Herb Miller, who served under Coveleski in the 1950s. “There wasn’t any misunderstanding when he told you what to do or if he criticized you.”
Coach’s dedication was so profound that he died of a heart attack on the floor of Rehoboth City Hall while fighting for a pay raise for Miller.
Until 1977, Coveleski interviewed guard applicants in his home, hiring those he found worthy with a handshake.
“He was a tremendous judge of character,” Miller recalls.
Today, there are extensive physical and written tests to even be considered for the job. Still, Coach was pretty specific. In the 1970s, he told applicants with beards they would be expected to cut their hair and be clean-shaven. If they balked, well, they just weren’t “RBP material.”
Peter Hartsock, who lifeguarded into his 50s, was clearing the water because of a storm coming in. He jumped off his chair as it exploded from a lightning bolt as he hit the ground.
Dave Frederick was saving a woman’s life and he had to pull out her false teeth to perform CPR. Her son found him the next day and gave him $5 for saving his mother’s life.
Sean MacLeish broke his arm in the surf when he was 7 and had his older brother, a lifeguard with the RBP, come help him. He got to sit in the chair next to his brother for a photo (a big no-no) as consolation for having to wear a cast.
In the 1930s, Lew Samuels used to do handstands for long periods of time on the guard chair to entertain children.
“The first female lifeguard, Teresa Olewnick, joined in 1970. As of last year, there were 11 women on patrol.”
“He was testing you. Were you going to be committed or not?” says John Coveleski. His father was looking for a certain person—someone who would be dedicated, responsible and fit.
Fit might be a bit of an understatement. For many RBP guards across the eras, the term “best shape of my life” invariably comes up. Besides watching the beach, they spend hours each day, before and after their shifts, in grueling workouts. Some even skip lunch to run on the beach. Several credit the strenuous testing to their future successes.
Members of the RBP have gone on to be politicians, judges, business owners and state police troopers. One is a scientist with the National Institutes of Health and another is the head football coach at Delaware State University.
“Doing something that is perceived to be that hard, something not everyone can do, it makes you realize you can do a lot more than you thought you could if you put in the work,” Crowley says. Even on days when they close the beach, the RBP is out in the surf practicing saves and swimming to become stronger.
“We never want to look at someone and say, ‘Sorry, we weren’t in good enough shape to help your loved one,” says Sean MacLeish, 24, one of three MacLeish brothers to serve the RBP in the last 15 years.
And with all that fitness, there was bound to be some competition. It started as a few events within the RBP. Then it grew to the Lifeguard Olympics, with teams from beaches in Delaware and surrounding states. In 1990, Capt. Kent Buckson took it international. RBP earned second place in the 4×100 soft sand relays at their first appearance at the World Lifesaving Championships in Lubeck, Germany. Since then, guards have brought home more than 100 medals from international competitions held worldwide, including in Australia and Japan.
Sonja Friend-Uhl traveled the world, winning medals as a runner for the RBP. The funny thing is, she almost quit in her first month. In 1987, Friend-Uhl was the only female guard. She was given no breaks and didn’t ask for any, she says. Although she was a strong athlete, she was intimidated by the Rehoboth waves. But former Capt. Mark Moore took her under his wing. Early one morning, he took her out in the ocean and let her “get pounded over and over again by the waves.” It taught her to relax, she explains. Then he taught her to dive into the waves. Her fear vanished.
“Bottom line is, they just want [the rookies] to succeed,” says MacLeish, who retired as a lieutenant in 2019.
At the end of 2020, RBP moved into a new era. After 21 years at the helm, Buckson resigned in December. Jeffrey Giles, a former rookie of the year and a Delaware state trooper, was hired to step in. Giles said he plans to continue the junior lifeguard program and the tradition of competition and excellence set by Buckson. Otherwise, coming back to RBP was like coming home.
“The friendships are all still there,” Giles says. “This is great.”