Unguarded moments at the day's end As the 5 p.m. whistle signals the lifeguards' departure, a few stay to savor the serenity of uncrowded sands.


REHOBOTH -- After a chill, rainy morning the sun bursts through the clouds and the beach suddenly brims with bathers. At last, in late afternoon, there are lives to guard. The Rehoboth beach patrol squad that has spent the day bundled in sweats and guarding nothing but the wide Atlantic is on alert.

The waves are huge, intimidating. There go the body surfers, the boogie boarders, the couples who link hands and hope for the best. There go the little ones flirting with the sea foam.

But this sea frolic is brief.

At precisely five minutes before 5 p.m., the lifeguards on duty TTC stand on their chairs and relay a pantomimed signal up and down the beach, from one station to the next. Both arms are extended and then the arm facing the water is bent back to the shoulder. The signal says: Time to get everybody out of the water! Five minutes later, on the hour (weekends at half-past), the lifeguards blow three long piercing whistles, point to the swimmers and gesture for them to leave the water. They again extend both arms, and this time bring both hands to their shoulders. That signal says: Everyone's out.

Here, the guard leaps from the chair, and another, a chunky, bronzed veteran of 27 summers, hoists it on his back and drags it beyond the high tide line.

The ritual is a clear way of telling swimmers that the guards are off duty, says Tom Coveleski, 42-year-old chief assistant to the beach patrol captain and a Rehoboth native. "We realized that some people did not realize the lifeguards had gone." The swimmers stand on the ocean's lip, hugging their shoulders, looking expectantly at the lifeguards, waiting for them to exit the beach. They want to dive back in.

Ordinarily, this is the sweet spot in the day, when you get more for your beach time. It's mellow, uncrowded. A fine, unguarded opportunity to release yourself to the water.

Today, though, the water is rough and only a few are daring enough to return to the mighty waves. They stick together for safety's sake.

But two little tow-headed girls with sun-browned skin find another way to celebrate the patrol's departure. They climb atop the tall lifeguard chair, count 1-2-3 and leap in tandem to the sandy earth below.

Pub Date: 9/02/98

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