By Cheryl Costello
He started as a rookie lifeguard for the Ocean City Beach Patrol (OCBP) an amazing five decades ago. And Captain Butch Arbin, the face of OCBP, is showing no signs of letting up in his push for safe fun in the water 50 years in.
Arbin expects excellence and politeness from his lifeguards, as Bay Bulletin found out last weekend on the beach. Ahead of the peak Labor Day crowds, the captain leads prospective lifeguards through grueling testing in the name of beach safety.
The timed test is part of OCBP’s search for next year’s lifeguards. They must prove they have what it takes to save a life in the Atlantic Ocean.
“Swimming in the ocean versus swimming in the pool—it’s just so different. There are waves and current, it’s just so different,” says Beach Patrol trainee Ava Shorkey.
Arbin is the first to admit it’s tough to get the job. “We don’t put up with anything. I told them at the beginning, ‘We’re professionals.’ If they joined today and let out the F-note, they’re done.”
At last Saturday’s testing, just five out of the 18 passed the physical exam to guard the stand next season. Others are training to be camp counselors.
Those who didn’t make the cut got a pep talk. “You have the most incredible attitude. You just have to get your time down. But I know you know that,” Arbin told the group of young, fit trainees.
He has trained thousands since he started in 1973. Ocean City has grown up under his watch. Just about every block is developed and the crowds have followed.
There are now guards watching all 10 miles of beach. Arbin says the most common rescues are due to rip currents.
“Last year, rip currents were the second-leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States… When the guard sees a person struggling, we’re not going to let them struggle. The guard blows his whistle twice, which is his signal to the guards on both sides, I’m going to make the rescue. He jumps down, grabs his buoy, swims out, and gives [the victim] the buoy. And then they swim sideways across the rip current, not straight in.”
It’s important to relax and think clearly if you’re ever caught in a rip current. “A rip current can move faster than an Olympic swimmer can swim,” says Arbin. “So, you can’t swim straight. It’s like being on a treadmill and not getting anywhere. You’re getting tired and eventually you end up off the back of the treadmill because you can’t keep up. So often people who drown in rip currents know how to swim. They just get panicked. We have a saying of R-I-P. R means relax, don’t panic. I means ‘I need help’ and P is for parallel—swim parallel to get out of it.”
The safest thing you can do is to set up your beach chair near a lifeguard and swim there. “We ask people to take the time to walk to their nearest guard because it can save a life—their own.”
About 98 percent of all drownings that have happened in Ocean City occurred when OCBP wasn’t on duty, the department says. There are guards in chairs from 10 am-5:30 pm every day until Sept. 25.
Arbin says over his 50 years leading Beach Patrol, he’s most proud of the impact lifeguarding has had on guards’ lives.
“One of our guys came to us as a high school dropout. He got close to getting terminated—we had a conference with him. He turned his act around, went back to get his degree, got a doctorate degree and now he’s a full professor at the University of Miami. He owns a healthcare company with a value of several million dollars. He came here as a high school dropout.”
Judges and Secret Service agents, state troopers, and doctors have come back to be part-time lifeguards. Outside of beach season, Arbin himself is a teacher at a planetarium in Charles County.
There’s no sign he’s riding his last wave at Ocean City Beach Patrol anytime soon.
“As long as I get up every day and like coming to work—and this is in both jobs—and I feel like I’m still on top of things and can make a difference, then I’ll continue to do it.”