OCEAN CITY – The newly established Surfing Beach Sub-Committee met for the first time yesterday to discuss modernizing Ocean City’s surfing laws, including the establishment of a third designated surfing beach on the weekends during the summer.
Ocean City Recreation and Parks Director Tom Shuster presented the Mayor and City Council last year the 2013 Surfing Beach Schedule for approval. Before a vote was taken, Councilman Dennis Dare asked the council’s consideration to table the schedule due to voiced concerns from the surfing community. The schedule was tabled until a committee was created to study the issue.
“There have been some concerns in the way that we do the surfing beaches and whether it is time for a change,” Councilman Joe Mitrecic said yesterday. “Some of these ordinances are between 20 and 30 years old and things change.”
At the subcommittee’s first meeting, Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin explained the current surfing beach rotation that begins on Memorial Day weekend and ends mid-September of each year. The next summer, the rotation picks up two blocks south of where it ended the previous year. With this schedule, a person staying at the same location during the same time frame each year would only be impacted by the surfing beach every 20 years.
Ocean City’s laws and regulations regarding surfing on the beaches have been tweaked several times since the 1960’s when surfing debuted in Ocean City, such as changing times on holidays and weekends, the use of ankle leashes or not being allowed during inclement weather.
The Eastern Surfing Association (ESA) was the official representative of the surfing community and worked with the beach patrol and the city to develop the rotating surfing beach. It was agreed that for the surfing beach to be open there needed to be a minimum of four surfers, otherwise it would be used for swimming.
Up until 1986 Ocean City had three surfing beaches that rotated one block each day, south to the north. In 1987, Ocean City went from having three surfing beaches to two that rotated one block each day, north to south, after the ESA asked the beach patrol to drop the third beach in exchange for no minimum of surfers required.
Due to low OCBP staffing, in 1989 lifeguards were pulled from guarding surfing beaches to sit regular stands, and it was at that time city officials decided to hire, train and equip specialized staff to work the surf beach.
The beach patrol hired Surf Beach Facilitators (SBFs) specifically for the task of establishing and maintaining the surfing beaches each day. At any time that there are no surfers using a designated surf beach, the area is immediately opened to swimmers, and remains open to swimmers until a surfer arrives to use the beach.
At the end of each day, SBFs walk two blocks south and talk with beach patrons to let them know that the next day their beach will be a designated surfing beach. Lifeguards on that beach will also announce it during their safety talks with beach patrons and on the chalkboard on the back of the guard stand.
The decision to “modify” the surfing ordinance and allow surfing throughout Ocean City comes from recommendations made by OCBPs four area supervisors. If it appears that weather and surf conditions will result in more surfers than swimmers using the beach on a given day, then surfing will be modified.
It was in 2007 that the Inlet surfing beach was introduced as a pilot program. The program was a popular success and continues to be open to surfers Monday-Friday except on holidays.
“When I became captain, one of my goals was I wanted to have a better relationship with the surfing community, and I believe that has happened,” Arbin said. “It is time to have this meeting now to say … can we make it better.”
Mick Chester, who spearheaded an online petition to modernize Ocean City’s skateboarding and surfing laws, began by suggesting having the surfing beaches become modified on a daily basis according to surf conditions and to use social media and other resources to get the word out on where the surfing beaches are located each day.
“There has been an adversarial relationship for so long and I never understood it,” Lee Gerachis of Malibu’s Surf Shop said, referring to the lifeguards and surfers. “I really don’t because most of the lifeguards surf but they butt heads … that’s why I am thinking, black and white, definitive, and then there is no room for discussion.”
Arbin and Surfing Beach Director Ward Kovacs agreed with Gerachis, saying there have been many problems in the past with surfing beaches being in flux. By the time surfers would arrive on the scene after word spread, conditions would have already changed.
“Part of the problem is since 1986 surfing has gotten so much bigger,” Rick Pairo, member of the Surfing Beach Sub-Committee, said. “In the big scope of things, things have gotten so much better since back in the days when there was a very tenuous relationship between the surfer and the guards and I think it has gotten nothing but better over the years. However, the surfing beach situation as far as you guys giving us these areas, as good as that is, there is so many more surfers, it is so much more cut throat, it is still putting sardines in a can.”
Chris Shanahan, co-owner of K-Coast Surf Shop, passed forward a popular suggestion he has found among the local surfers to extend the surfing beaches to three blocks when surf is good.
Arbin pointed out an issue with having a surfing beach become three blocks is they become overlapped in the next day’s rotation and beach patrons become frustrated with the beach being closed two days in row.
“It [surfing beach] probably needs to be bigger from the way I have seen it … but I would be cautious to say that we would be looking at a three blocks … because what we end up getting from the people that come here for a week or two, they just don’t yell at the guards,” Joe Groves, president of Delmarva Condominium Managers Association, said.
Mike Foelber of the Princess Royale presented an image taken by Google Earth on 4th of July weekend in 2010 of several blocks of beach in front of the hotel. The concentration of beach patrons in front of the Princess Royale was noticeably more congested than the blocks of beach to the north and south.
Foelber suggested having the surfing beach go from midblock to the next midblock, leaving half a block open for beach patrons in front of the hotel to avoid having them walk a full block to reach an open beach.
“If we could, maybe split the blocks in half or have them not hit the major hotels and condos on holiday weekends,” he asked.
Kovacs reminded the committee the surfing beach staffing is done at least a week prior and it is difficult to predict the chances of a surfing beach becoming modified due to good surf conditions that far in advance as well as increases in potential complaints from beach patrons who will be caught off guard by a modification to the surfing beach schedule.
“On days that we do have good surf … keep the schedule the way it is … but keep it at an option to increase south and north to the inside of the next dune crossing [mid-block], because at that point you are almost doubling the size of the surfing beach without blocking other beach access,” Kovacs said incorporating the other suggestions given. “That way it gives the flexibility, it increases the size, I don’t have to increase staffing, and I know where my staffing is going to go. I think it covers a lot of bases, plus it is flexible allowing maximum access to the ocean for swimmers.”
As discussion turned towards the Inlet being closed to surfers on the weekend, Chester suggested adding a third surfing beach to the schedule on the weekends to make up for the lost space at the Inlet.
“Now we have seen the dynamics change … historically north of 90th St. there has not been a lot of surfing on those beaches up there … that would add more validity to the mix to put a third beach in the mix of where we may or may not find the waves,” Shelly Dawson of the Ocean City chapter of the Surfrider Foundation said.
Chester brought up the budget allocated per surfing beaches for expenditures, such as staffing, signage and equipment, and if the funds are available to facilitate a third surfing beach.
After much discussion, the committee was in consensus to move forward with Chester’s recommendation to add a third surfing beach on the weekends to the mix. The next meeting is scheduled at 4 p.m. at City Hall on April 15 when a schedule will be presented with the addition of a third surfing beach on the weekends, along with the possible expenses involved.
“I would like to suggest that any change we make, we do it in the same way as was so successful with the Inlet surfing beach, we do it as a pilot program so it doesn’t necessarily have to be codified right away because if it does become a problem … we have to change it back,” Kovacs said.