FENWICK ISLAND, Del. (AP) — This year’s unofficial end of summer also marks the end of an era in Fenwick Island as beach patrol captain Tim Ferry prepares to hang up his whistle after nearly 43 years.
The buff high school guidance counselor has been manning the shoreline since 1976, saving lives in between winning medals at international lifeguard competitions and literally writing the handbook on beach safety.
“You have to be prepared every day, and until we blow that whistle at 5 o’clock, anything can happen,” the Maryland native said. “You just have to be ready for it. You can’t get lulled into that sense of comfort.”
Throughout his decades-long career patrolling the beaches along Delaware’s most southern shoreline, Ferry has been a part of hundreds of rescues while also training new generations of lifesavers.
His devoted focus on fitness, dedication for the job and competitive nature has not gone unnoticed, said Fenwick lifeguard Josh Strine.
“My tryout was the first time I met him,” said Strine, who has been a lifeguard for Ferry for eight years. “He was his normal intimidating self. This guy that’s jacked and tan and the best lifeguard ever watching you try out — that’s a little nerve-wracking when that’s the guy you have to impress.”
Once Strine made the cut — he said Ferry handing him the town’s beach patrol manual was the ultimate moment of recognition — he knew he was in for a unique work-hard-play-hard lifestyle.
“He just gets it, although I don’t know what ‘it’ is,” Strine said. “What you see is what you get with him. He’s a great friend, very loyal, and has your back through anything. That’s kind of hard to find nowadays.”
But there was once a time that Ferry was the one in need of rescue.
He was 12 years old and enjoying Bethany’s waves with family friends when a rip current pulled them dangerously far from shore. He said he knew to swim parallel to the beach, but it wasn’t working. He tried and tried, never panicking, but the lifeguard whistling and waving for them to come back realized the swimmers were in trouble.
He and the others were pulled back to safety, but Ferry said his own encounter with the ocean’s power was part of what inspired him to one day become a guard.
“That rescue had an impact on me without a doubt,” he said. “I always thought, ‘I can do that.'”
A couple of summers later and he was in. He has been lifeguarding every summer since.
“When I think back, being such a young kid, to some of the older guys that were on that patrol, I couldn’t have asked for a better group to teach me,” he said. “There were some crazy guys with some unbelievable personalities, but the one thing that I saw in every single one of them was the passion for the job. It’s been with me ever since.”
Throughout those years Ferry has seen the good and the bad of beach life: a deer enjoying a dip in the ocean, trying to explain to visitors how many sharks might be out there, watching an endangered sea turtle lay eggs on the beach, and doing his best to save people seriously injured by the surf and sand.
“With the beach, every day really can be so different,” he said. “The wind can change everything. Your morning and afternoon can look completely different — it can change the swell, the surf conditions, the currents . it is that unpredictable nature and that’s how I have to prepare my guards, too.”
His athletic, competitive nature fit in perfectly with those summers in the sand. As a baseball, football and basketball player in high school who excelled at sprinting, Ferry dove right in to the annual lifeguard competitions. And the older he got, the better he got, the 57-year-old said.
“I bought into it, hook, line and sinker,” he said. “Even the training, learning and wanting to be the best guard that I can be.”
Aside from the thrill of competing — and often winning — against lifeguards still shining with youth, Ferry also has the medals to prove his ability. In 2000, Ferry finished third in an international lifeguard competition in Australia, and placed second two years later in Daytona, Florida.
The president of the Sussex County Lifesaving Association said he will not be going far — he still lives in Fenwick and beach patrol duties are close to his heart. But after never having a summer off after all those years, it will be nice to hit the gym with his bride of three years and spend a little more downtime just enjoying life along the coast.
Ferry will continue waking around 5:30 a.m. every day, working with students at Stephen Decatur High School and Wilmington University and, of course, maintaining his epic tan and body-builder physique. He’ll probably still be on the lifeguarding sidelines, too, he said.
“It’s going to be nice to have one less thing on my plate,” he said. “Is it going to be hard? Yes. Is it going to be different? Yes. But I’ve done pretty much all I can do in lifeguarding and I love it to death … but at some point it was going to end. I have no regrets.”
But anyone who hopes that Ferry’s retirement will finally come with an explanation of where he got the nickname “Toast” is going to have to keep hoping. He would not cave in to sharing the origin of the name, which he said is truthfully an underwhelming story.
“He’s always been Toast, and that will never change,” Strine said. “Regardless of the origin, his guarding career and reputation down here made it almost a separate meaning.”
When Toast finally says goodbye after the lifeguard stands are pulled in for the season, he leaves behind a crew of lifeguards who wonder if his replacement can live up to his example.
“I know a lot of guys would say, ‘Can we just get 10 more years?'” Strine said. “This guy is an awesome guard, an awesome friend. I’m pumped we had the opportunity to work for him.”
Contact reporter Maddy Lauria at (302) 345-0608, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MaddyinMilford.
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com
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