My latest piece in the Times is just out, a great little story about the lifeguard who oversees New Jersey’s only nude beach.
SANDY HOOK, N.J. — In his 39 summers as a lifeguard at the Sandy Hook beach on the New Jersey shore, Tom McLaughlin has always had a fascinating vantage point from his stand.
When he started in 1969, he witnessed the ominous missile drills at the nearby Fort Hancock Army base. “You sort of hoped you wouldn’t see one go off,” he says. During the 1970s, he watched the World Trade Center towers grow floor by floor. He was there when female lifeguards became part of the crew and when mouth-to-mouth resuscitation became part of first-aid training. But it was with the creation of Gunnison Beach, the only clothing-optional section of New Jersey’s shoreline, that it became safe to say that Tom McLaughlin had seen everything.
“It’s really not that different from any other beach,” he says. “If you’re in need of being rescued, the last thing you’re thinking about is what you’re wearing.” Or not wearing, as the case may be.
Mr. McLaughlin got a summer job at age 16 and never left. Now 54 and a physics teacher in Holmdel, N.J., he has been the chief lifeguard at Sandy Hook for the last 26 years. Short in stature with a deep perpetual tan and a close-clipped sandy beard, he spends his summers training the rookies and overseeing the park’s five beaches, where the guards average 300 to 400 rescues a year.
On a recent Saturday, he stopped at Gunnison Beach to survey the scene. At this Eden with umbrellas, some of the naturists were engaged in an intense round of volleyball, while others happily lounged without the fear of tan lines. A new visitor approached and asked Mr. McLaughlin why everyone seemed to be on the right side of the beach.
“It’s clothing optional on that side of the signs,” he explained.
“So pretty much everyone is naked over there?” the visitor asked.
“You don’t have to be,” Mr. McLaughlin said, “but you can be if that’s your thing.”
An unofficial locale for naturists for decades, Gunnison got lifeguard patrols in the early 1990s, after Mr. McLaughlin and his staff found themselves rushing several hundred yards down the beach for rescues.
“We were responding to emergencies, although we were technically not guarding that section of the beach,” he says. Eventually, the park decided to have lifeguards work the clothing-optional section, precipitating a debate over whether the guards should be clothed while on duty.
“The lifeguards certainly wouldn’t be clothing-optional as employees of the National Park Service,” Mr. McLaughlin says. He says lifeguards have never had a problem with the nudity and rotate through the Gunnison post just like any other.
“It’s really not that different from any other beach,” Mr. McLaughlin says. “It becomes part of the job, and anyway, you’re looking at the water.”
In 1969, Tom McLaughlin, right, became a lifeguard at Sandy Hook, N.J. He is still there, and now so is his son Tom Jr., left.
[photos: Dith Pran/The New York Times]