OCEAN CITY – A pilot program looks to be in the works to allow stand-up paddleboards in the surf during the times of modified surfing in the month of September.
Last week, Gabriel Mancini, owner of Mancini’s Italian Restaurant in Fenwick Island and an Ocean City resident, came before the Mayor and City Council asking for the Recreation and Parks Committee to examine Ocean City’s code to consider having a Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) be reclassified as a surfboard to be allowed in the ocean’s surf during the time of modified surfing beaches.
SUPs are generally longer than nine feet with some extending longer than 12 feet with one to three surfboard style fins in the stern for tracking. The person stands on the board and uses a long single-bladed paddle to navigate the water.
Currently, SUP is defined by City Code as a watercraft due to its use of a paddle. The code states, “It is prohibited for any person to ride a wind surfboard or operate any watercraft from adjoining land upon any beach in the corporate limits of Ocean City, from Friday of Memorial Day weekend to September 30 between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.”
Ocean City’s modified surfing beach expands two scheduled rotating surfing beaches during times of good surf and poor swimming conditions, as well as has the Inlet open to surfers on a conditional basis on the weekends during the summer due to the surfing beaches being overcrowded.
Modified surfing beaches also come into play as the off-season approaches, such as in the month of September when the beaches are less crowded and at the lifeguard’s discretion they will open the ocean to surfers.
This week the issue came before the Recreation and Parks Commission for preliminary discussion with the Ocean City Beach Patrol (OCBP).
“I did not realize they are in fact interested in catching waves with a SUP. It seems to be some of the surfers are transitioning to catch waves with larger SUPs to catch waves a little easier,” Commission Chair Councilman Joe Mitrecic said.
OCBP Lt. Ward Kovacs pointed out both Federal and State laws classify SUP as a vessel.
According to the United States Coast Guard regulations, a SUP is no different than vessels. SUP users, when outside surf or swim zones or bathing areas, are required to carry a lifejacket, or Personal Flotation Device (PFD), a whistle and, if out after dark, a flashlight to give fair warning to other boaters that they’re in the area.
According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Regulations, life jackets are also required on non-motorized vessels including canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and any other device capable of being used as a means of transportation on the water or ice.
“Mr. Mancini had mentioned re-classifying them [SUPs] in the code. The federal government says this, the state government backs it up and is even more restrictive, so I don’t see how the city could unclassify it as a watercraft,” Kovacs said. “I have extensive experience paddle boarding. The paddleboards we [OCBP] use are 12 feet long. I know how they handle in the surf, and just because you put a leash on something it doesn’t mean you have control of the board when you get wiped out on a wave when you’re surfing.”
In putting a measurement to it, Kovacs figured a standard SUP is 12 feet long plus the length of a leash and a paddle, the danger zone created by a SUP can equal at least 38 feet.
In comparing surfers to SUP users, surfers generally stay in one location except when moving with the current. SUPs are made to travel.
“They are in one area and before you know it they will be a mile down,” Kovacs said.
Kovacs contacted a SUP vendor in Virginia Beach where they allow SUs on surfing beaches.
“He said the surfers and SUPrs do not get along,” Kovacs said.
Although the SUPs will go to the surfing beaches with the most distance, the flotation power of a SUP makes it is easier for them to catch smaller waves farther out, which result in SUPs interfering with surfers in the surf zone because the surfers don’t see them coming.
“We are very much concerned over this because it is a growing sport,” Kovacs said.
OCBP Capt. Butch Arbin polled OCBP officers and crew chiefs and there is overwhelming concern over safety and less experienced users being unable to negotiate currents and wind on the ocean side.
Kovacs cited an Ocean City area SUP company, Walk On Water, which recently posted on Facebook, “We understand that there is a request before the Ocean City Council to allow SUP at surfing beaches. There are some SUPrs that are proficient enough in the line up to safely mix in with those crowds. The vast majority are not. In addition the snappy beach break waves in town are not much for SUP. Unless the town was to grant SUP an exclusive beach, the combining of novice SUPrs with novice surfers would be dangerous.”
Kovacs furthered, although Mancini asked for SUP to be considered allowable on modified surfing days, those are usually days with bad weather or are overcast, which wouldn’t be safe for SUPs to operate in the surf anyways.
Recreation and Parks Director Tom Shuster added currently it is permissible for a SUP to go into the ocean any time year-round except from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. between the start of June to the end of September.
“So right now the period of time they are allowed in is much greater than the period of time they are restricted,” Shuster said.
Mitrecic asserted Mancini’s point was when he goes to the beach in September and the beach and ocean is empty he cannot utilize his SUP.
“I think he is more concerned there are people who like to do it on a weekday in September when we have modified surfing and there is not a soul in the water,” Mitrecic said.
Councilman Dennis Dare suggested allowing SUP in the surf during September but first giving swimmers and surfers priority.
“It would be nice to be able to try something out that is very restrictive to begin with,” Dare said.
Councilman Lloyd Martin made a motion to have OCBP develop a pilot program to possibly allow limited access to SUP in the surf after Labor Day in September during the times of modified surfing. The commission approved.
OCBP will return with a recommended pilot program to the commission, which will in turn present the program to the Surfing Commission for input and consensus.