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Justin Soden's Vision Quest

Justin Soden 12/4/23

Photos: Wildwood Beach Patrol

vi·sion quest

/ˈviZHən kwest/


  1. an attempt to achieve a vision of a future guardian spirit, traditionally undertaken at puberty by boys of the Plains Indian peoples, typically through fasting or self-torture.

Remember the 1985 movie Vision Quest? Well imagine a Lifeguard on a mission instead of a wrestler. And his name is Justin Soden instead of Louden Swain.

On Monday, December 4, 2023, Justin Soden was on his own vision quest as he paddled in memory of his father, the late Bert Soden, around the island of Wildwood. The journey took 4.25 hours in ocean temperatures of 51 degrees. Air temperature was 53 degrees. Winds were W NW 12mph. He was in many blind spots along the way.

Justin paddled on a 10’6” board instead of the standard 18’ board, which would have been much faster. He was adamant about the board because his father trained him on that board size. Miraculously, he beat the 18’ board time by a long shot.

Despite the frigid climate and warnings from senior lifeguards and surfers, he paddled in shorts and without gloves or a wet suit. Ed Gibson, a former North Wildwood Lifeguard was going surfing for a half hour that very morning and warned Justin to suit up. He refused. Most paddlers and surfers wear full water gear in these temperatures for much shorter amounts of exposure.

A bystander with a public safety background is the one who dubbed this Justin’s vision quest. Wildwood Beach Patrol Captain Ed Schneider, who is also a Wrestling Hall of Fame Coach echoed this sentiment adding, “Only one in a million people can do what Justin did.” Keep in mind, he was born and raised in Florida and has never been in New Jersey water temps like this before. Many people have paddled around the island, but never in this cold.

Though this was a solo journey, Justin had some company along the way. About halfway through the paddle, the “pit crew’ got a 911 call from the coastguard about a paddler in distress and followed him all the way out of Cape May inlet without assistance.

Bill Auty, who has lifeguarded in New Jersey, Florida, and California and is a full-time Philadelphia firefighter, called this “the most impressive thing I have ever seen. Justin was simply unstoppable.”

We asked Justin about his thoughts on his quest:

Why did you do this paddle?

I did this paddle because I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. On Dec 2, 2022, I advised the Captain of Hollywood Ocean Rescue and former WBP Alum, Leo Yost, that my dad was in hospice, and I may need to leave work early. I was also up to pick vacation and the month of July and August were wide open. I picked July 10-August 9, 2023. I called my dad and told him that I wanted to work for WBP during my vacation. My dad was so happy; he always wanted me to work in Jersey. His dream was for us to work together. Two days later, my dad passed away. When I arrived in Wildwood in the summer, I showed some of the guards a video of my dad talking about him swimming around Wildwood and how he would dedicate these long swims to his mom who passed away from breast cancer while he was a teenager lifeguarding in Jersey. I did this paddle in honor and memory of my dad who passed away from Stage 4 Colon Cancer just as he did for his mom, and I didn’t want my dad to be the only Soden to go around the island.

Why did you choose to do this in December?

I chose to do this paddle around the island on Dec 4, 2023, because it was exactly a year after my dad passed away, and I wanted to do something in memory of him. I was aware that the air temperature, ocean temperature, and water conditions could be rather harsh this time of the year and was advised that it would be better off to pick a nicer time of the year to do the paddle. But as a lifeguard you don’t get to pick and choose when you’re going to make a rescue. You have to be ready to save someone’s life at any time regardless of ocean conditions or water temperatures. Even as a Florida boy, my father always made sure I was doing cold water training in north Florida. My mind was set on doing it on this day no matter what the conditions of the day were going to be. Was I a hundred percent sure I was going to be successful? No. But was I going to give it my best attempt? Yes. This wasn’t about me; this was about dedicating this to my father and making him proud. My dad passed away Dec 4, 2022, 2:43pm. On Dec 4, 2023, at 2:45pm, I paddled by my dad’s lifeguard stand that he used to sit on at Garfield Avenue and dropped one of his lifeguard medals in the ocean. I started my paddle at 10:41am and to pass by his old stand at 2:45pm just 2 minutes after he passed away a year ago was surreal.

What was the toughest part of the paddle?

The toughest part about the paddle was the navigation and battling the elements of the temperature. The navigation was tough because I was unfamiliar with the bay with the fear of getting lost, stranded, or just going the wrong way and how that could cut into energy wasted. The other toughest part was battling the cold and the unknown of how much my body would be able to withstand. I knew that my adrenaline could compensate for maybe an hour, but after that I would be at the mercy of my body’s will to fight the cold. My hands and feet took the worst of it, as I had to constantly move them around to avoid losing function and sensation. I kept thinking to myself what would a Navy Seal do if he were abandoned in freezing water for 4-5 hours? Would he survive? I believe so. That was my thought process. I also thought about my dad who was diagnosed with cancer in January 2022 and still managed to compete in multiple races throughout the year refusing to quit - the true definition of “Ocean Lifeguard Tough.” I was able to complete this paddle without wearing a wetsuit, hoodie, gloves, or booties. I wore two rash guards with a neoprene top over that and a pair of lifeguard shorts. I believe that the cold water training my dad put me through when I was younger paid off, as I built a strong tolerance to cold water. Even on my final day in Wildwood before I left to go home to Florida, I did a polar plunge at sunrise in 30 degrees air temp/51 degrees water temperature swimming 74 strokes out in honor of my father’s 74 years of life - a tradition my dad would do every year of his life. I was only wearing a speedo, which I am sure put a smile on his face.

What did your father love most about Wildwood or WBP?

My dad spent 7 summers working WBP 1971-1977. He represented Wildwood in the South Jersey Championships 5 times. My dad loved Wildwood because it made him feel like a rockstar, something he didn’t feel working his previous beach patrol. I’ve heard countless stories of his times up in Wildwood being some of the best times of his life and many guards that worked with my father would agree. He loved Wildwood because it was lively, there was always something going on, plus getting a lot more action with rescues being that it was a busier beach. Those guys back then had a lot of fun, and I believe that it is still the case to this day with the current guards. I come from working Hollywood Beach and Miami Beach, and I believe nothing compares to Wildwood’s atmosphere. If only the water was warm enough to allow bathers to swim year-round, I’m sure my dad might have spent his entire career working up here instead. That’s how much he loved working WBP. I’m glad I was able to work for WBP and experience the same things as my dad. I’m thankful for all the guards that gave references and vouching for me so I could be able to hold to my promise to my dad that I would work WBP as a legacy guard. WBP is family, and it truly showed in them helping me complete this paddle. There have been so many people in my time in Jersey that have gone above and beyond, and for that I am forever grateful.

You had a lot of “coaches” for this endeavor. Why was that important?

I refer to them as mentors and teachers. The older guys passing down knowledge to the younger guys is what it’s all about. I would like to think of myself as a student in lifeguarding picking the brains of all the guys that came before me. I’ve had so many mentors and lifeguards that have taken me under their wing, that I would not have been able to do that paddle if it weren’t for them. Thinking about my dad, as well as all the Jersey guards past and present, is what kept me going when I was out there paddling. I didn’t want to let them down. Those were my mentors and coaches - too many to name - but those were the legends of lifeguarding that I grew up around.

[Justin’s “pit crew” was Dave Lindsay, Nate Dirvin, Tim McCool, Steve Kane, Kim McKay, and Bill Auty.]

What would your father have to say to you now about your accomplishment?

My dad would tell me how proud he is of me following in his legacy, especially working in Wildwood and honoring him in true Bert Soden style paddling around the island in freezing cold water. For me, because my dad was my coach, I can still hear him in the back of my head every time I train yelling at me when I do good or bad knowing I can do better. That’s what motivates me to push myself to that redline, the point that you want to quit when things get too tough but keep going. I remember when my dad turned 70, we would wake up at 5am to go to the beach and do lifeguard workouts and after the workout he would say “How many fathers in their 70’s are up at 5am training with their son?” That’s one thing I’ll never take for granted because it’s true: my dad was one of a kind.

What words of wisdom would you like to share for current or up-and-coming lifeguards?

My dad was asked a similar question a couple of years ago when being interviewed by Sea Isle City Beach Patrol for their 100th anniversary. He said most guys get into lifeguarding and start chasing the money. He said, “For me, I’m in it for the love of the game.” If you ask anybody that knew my dad, they will agree. My dad was the true embodiment of the saying we use Lifeguards for Life, so I would say if you do what you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. Most lifeguards past, present, former, or retired would still say to this day that out of all the jobs they had, that lifeguarding was the best job they ever had. It’s one of the only professions where you can know lifeguards from all around the world. The lifeguard bond is unlike any profession you’ll ever come across, and the friends you’ll make will last a lifetime. I’m proud to be part of the lifeguard community.

What is the biggest lesson in this?

Everybody has different ways to cope with dealing with a loss. This is my way, just as it was my dad’s way. I challenged myself with the fear of knowing I could fail, but my belief is stronger than any doubt, and I knew that my dad 1000% believed in me, so that was my inspiration. As a waterman, it’s important to understand that the ocean has a unique way of humbling you no matter how tough you think you are. Some of my biggest life lessons I’ve learned came from taking a beating from the ocean. On Monday, December 4, 2023, I learned that you can push yourself beyond your limits for the ones you love.

Bert Soden was born in Broomall, Pa September 16, 1949.

He was an ocean rescue lifeguard for 55 years from 1966-2021. He worked his first 4 seasons for Sea Isle City Beach Patrol, then the next 7 summers for WBP while working for Hollywood Beach Patrol in Florida for the winter where he would eventually become a supervisor also known as a Marine Safety Officer. In 1983, my dad was offered the full-time position to work for Miami Beach Ocean Rescue where he spent the next 38 years of his career which is a record for Miami Beach. My dad was referred to by his coworkers and peers in the lifeguard community as the “Legend” for his longevity. He was always working out on his breaks, regardless of his age, which inspired a lot of his coworkers. He competed every year in the USLA Lifeguard Championships even last year in 2022 with Stage 4 Colon Cancer. It didn’t stop him. My dad was one of the few that you could say was in lifeguarding truly for the love of the game. There’s a saying in lifeguarding, whether you work one year or 30 years, you are still Lifeguards for Life. Many people have said my dad was the embodiment of that saying.

Justin Soden was born Hollywood, Florida.

I have been lifeguarding for 4 years working as a full time Marine Safety Officer for Hollywood Ocean Rescue just as my dad did. I also work part time for Miami Beach Ocean Rescue the same beach my dad worked 38 years. I’m an on-call lifeguard for Hallandale Beach Ocean Rescue. This was the first summer where I was able to work on my vacation as a WBP lifeguard just as my dad did along with many former Hollywood lifeguards who came from Jersey beaches who would go back in the summer to work in Jersey.


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