NEW YORK — From his wooden perch overlooking the shoreline, Gerry Lambert stood up and eyed three teenagers caught in a rough ocean’s sudden riptide.
“We got a little situation,” Lambert said calmly to his fellow lifeguards resting behind the stand.
At 73, Lambert is the oldest lifeguard at Tobay Beach, an oceanfront expanse on the South Shore of Long Island just east of Jones Beach, where he has been working since the late 1950s.
He blew his whistle at the teenagers and took off his hat and sunglasses, but relaxed after seeing the swimmers safely regain their footing.
“An experienced lifeguard knows when to go and when not to go” on a rescue, said Lambert, one of the oldest active lifeguards — the kind who still dash into the surf to rescue swimmers — at a public beach in the Northeast.
Most ocean rescues result from swimmers’ being pulled out by riptides, or narrow “sucks” of water washing back out from shore in one spot, a condition that a veteran ocean lifeguard can spot immediately, Lambert said.
“When you get waves crashing in at high tide, the backwater rushes back out in certain spots,” he said. “Kids can get swept off their feet, and even adults can get caught in it.”
The image of an ocean lifeguard is often of a young bronzed god. But many, like Lambert, work well into their senior years, returning to the beach summer after summer for as long as their bodies hold out.
In Lambert’s case, his right knee has been replaced with a titanium one and he is in remission after a bout with prostate cancer a few years back.
“Once you develop a waterman’s lifestyle, you keep coming back,” said Lambert, one of many Tobay guards with several decades on the beach — men like John McGovern and John Grant, both of whom have at least 50 years’ experience, and another half-dozen nearing that milestone.
Lambert worked for decades as a union electrician in Manhattan, but early on, after a few summers away from the beach, he began taking summers off to work the beach job.
Lambert and his wife, Cathy, moved to a horse farm in a landlocked part of Florida 15 years ago, but he alone drives back to Long Island each May for another summer of lifeguarding, spending his nights on a cot in his brother’s apartment about 15 minutes from Tobay.
Lambert is not even the oldest working lifeguard on Long Island. Jones Beach also has a few in their early 70s, and the Hamptons has John J. Ryan, 82, a lifeguard training coordinator for the Town of East Hampton.
Ryan said he considered himself “a lifeguard for life,” and he said he still kept watch at the Amagansett Beach Association club, which he manages, “but I don’t get wet anymore — I haven’t made an ocean rescue in 15 years.”
He began lifeguarding at age 16 for the city of Long Beach, on Long Island, in 1951, and also belongs to the year-round East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue squad.
Then there is Harvey Weisenberg, a former New York state assemblyman, who said he spent nearly 60 years lifeguarding and was still ocean-certified and teaching lifesaving. This summer he is the head lifeguard at the Surf for All camp for people with disabilities in Atlantic Beach, New York.
“It gets into your blood,” said Weisenberg, 83, who spent 25 years in the Assembly before retiring in 2014.
There are many guards in their late 60s, including Paul Gillespie, 67, chief of lifeguards for the city of Long Beach, who oversees 170 guards.
Gillespie, a retired teacher who still coaches wrestling, is in his 48th year on the beach and said he would work “as long as I can.” His buddy Reggie Jones, 90, began his lifeguard career at Jones Beach in 1944. It lasted until his retirement in 2009, after he failed his recertification test at 82 by missing the required time in the pool sprint by a fraction of a second.
Many a lifeguard’s career is ended by the stopwatch, in the dreaded pool sprints that are part of ocean lifeguard recertification.
A fraction of a second ended a long Jones Beach career for Ed Peters, 74. With an array of replaced joints, he now works at a private club in Atlantic Beach that uses different criteria for its certification.
Another longtime Jones Beach guard, Roy Lester, 67, claimed that New York state officials forbade him from wearing biking shorts for his pool test, an option he preferred to a Speedo-style suit, which he called too revealing for an older man. He is suing the state to regain his job, alleging age discrimination; the so-called “Speedo suit” trial is scheduled to begin next month.
Lambert at Tobay Beach, whose recertification next summer will require a 50-yard pool sprint in 35 seconds or less, said he began working at the beach in 1958 selling hot dogs at the snack bar.
At the time, surfing was still in its infancy on the East Coast and was finding a foothold at Tobay. Lifeguards experimented with making boards of plywood and cork wrapped in painted canvas, followed by more modern fiberglass ones. Lambert said he would give the lifeguards free hot dogs in exchange for borrowing a rescue board during his break from the grill.
“I’d take off my apron and tell the boss, ‘I’m going surfing,’ and he’d say, ‘What’s surfing?’ — that’s how new it was,” Lambert recalled.
He took the lifeguard test in cold waters in 1961 and was hired for $4 a day.
Lambert and his younger brother Bobby, another longtime Tobay guard until several years ago, surfed with the older Tobay watermen, like George Weber, who wore a waiter’s outfit and surfed a wave into shore while holding a tray of beer in a Colt 45 malt liquor commercial, and Gordon Carberry, who became an early East Coast surfing champion.
“I traded hot dogs so I could surf with these legends who were my heroes, and surfing became my main passion in life,” said Lambert, who builds his own surfboards and fishing rods.
At Tobay — which is run by the Town of Oyster Bay and has about 60 guards covering a dozen stands — Lambert’s fellow lifeguards have included actor William Baldwin, of the Baldwin brothers, and the three Baldinger brothers who went on to play pro football.
He said he planned on working as a lifeguard until he fails the pool test.
“I keep coming back because of my love for surfing and the beach,” he said, “and the great memories of my early start down here.”