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CAPTAIN OF THE BEACH LETS LITTLE PASS HIM BY

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There is no knowing it when you come to the fiercely busy Central Mall field at Jones Beach to feel the baking sun and face the ocean, but this is Bob Lenti's beach.

Do something wrong, and feel his unflinching wrath. Innumerable acts will get his attention: bopping someone with a ball where one is not supposed to play ball, propping up your umbrella past the umbrella line and obscuring the view of the lifeguards, drinking alcoholic beverages and then parading into the ocean or, of course, starting to drown. He has one objective: that at the end of the day, the same number of people who come to his beach leave it. That alone is how he measures a good day.A woman approached the lifeguard stand and told Lenti she had lost her glasses in the ocean; did he think he could find them?

"Glasses?" he said. "In the ocean? Uh, I don't think so."

He is the large-framed man with the mustache and the flinty air of command. He wears a shirt and a hat, in deference to 10 operations for skin cancer during his 31 years on the beach. Dismissing excess prudence, he explains that his love of the work makes him unable to give up the sun.

He is the captain of Central Mall, a man with thousands of rescues to his credit, and beneath him is his army of 32 lifeguards. His milieu - a strip of about a quarter-mile of sand in the very center of Jones Beach, near the main restaurant and the landmark water tower - is the most active field. The sea smell collides with the scent of suntan lotion. On a busy day, more than 30,000 people disgorge on Central Mall. On weekends, it is difficult to see sand, just blankets and flesh.

"We have two basic crowds," Lenti said. "There's the younger crowd, which includes a lot of bodybuilders. It's Muscle Land. Later in the day, we have a more eclectic population of all different nationalities. We have musicians who come here and play drums. We have a guy who comes on stilts with a stringed bass.

"Some beaches, you know everyone and they come day after day. It's not like that here. It's less of a personal beach, but it's more exciting. We run a lot of rescues. In the years I've been here, we haven't lost a person. But we run rescues like crazy. There are weeks when we don't get dry."

The sun was fierce and glinted off the water. Gulls swooped overhead. Lenti took the rowboat out beyond where the whitecaps crashed. He looked out to the horizon, a meld of blue, sky and water. He does this regularly, to exercise and to consider potential perils. There is always the worry that lurking out there is a shark that has not eaten lately. Lenti has, on the rarest of occasions, found sharks, though more commonly sunfish, sea turtles, a lobster pot marker and a bikini top.

When he got back to land, he was a little winded. "I'm 47," he said. "But I touch the sand and I'm 18 again."