Council Okays Closing Ocean For Boats

OCEAN CITY – The City Council voted unanimously to allow the Geico Offshore Boat Gran Prix to come a little closer to the shore this year, but the decision will temporarily close the surf to swimmers in a portion of the downtown area for several hours.

Though the town technically doesn’t have the authority to close the surf under the town’s current code, the council decided, upon City Solicitor Guy Ayres’ recommendation, to have Mayor Rick Meehan pen a letter giving the town’s blessing to the United States Coast Guard to close the surf between 6th and 22nd streets on May 31 until approximately 4 p.m. while the race is going on.

“The Atlantic Ocean is considered a navigable waterway,” said Ayres, “and any jurisdiction of navigable waterways falls under the control of the federal government, primarily on the Coast Guard.”

The Geico Offshore Gran Prix has taken place each summer since 2006 and Council President Joe Mitrecic called the annual boat race a “great event that the town is lucky to have.”

One of the few critiques of the race, however, is how far offshore the boat race takes place and how hard that makes it for spectators to enjoy from shore.

“Even with binoculars it’s hard to spot out the races and the boats,” said event organizer Edward Smith of OPA Racing Inc. “They have to bring in monster cameras for television coverage, but we are hoping to work out a way to bring it a little closer and still keep safety as our utmost concern.”

Smith said that the main reason that organizers were requesting that a portion of the course be moved to 600 yards from shore, rather than the 880 yards that it was in past years, was to perhaps cater to a request from the event’s biggest corporate sponsor.

“We got Geico to sponsor offshore racing this year, which is very rare and very hard to do,” said Smith, “but last year, while the Geico executives sat in the VIP box of the Commander Hotel, their comment was that it was a great event to sponsor, but they just couldn’t see it.”

Smith called the Ocean City race the “premiere site” of the eight-race northeast tour and praised the town for its continued support and willingness to work with the group.  He said the event hosted 52 race teams last year, and expects more teams this year, and more than 10,000 spectators.

“We’ve never asked the city for a penny in the four years that we’ve brought this event to town, but the problem is that this event costs about $110,000 to put on, so that is a big reason we are trying to get a portion of the course a little closer.”

In essence, the course is two miles long, starting from the south, making a turn at 22nd Street and angling toward the shore, the closest point being in front of the Commander Hotel on 14th Street, 600 yards from shore, before taking another turn and completing the race further off shore.

Master Chief Carter of the US Coast Guard said that the surf wouldn’t be closed without the permission of the town as a courtesy, but stressed that bringing the race in, necessitated the surf closing during the race.

“If we brought this into the 600-yard range and continued to allow swimmers in the water while the race was taking place, my recommendation would be to not allow that,” said Master Chief Carter; “The United States Coast Guard is not going to tell the town of Ocean City that they need to close the beach because we are permitting an event, but by acknowledging the closing of the surf from 6th to 22nd streets for safety reasons, I can go back and give my recommendation.”

Lieutenant Ward Kovacs of the Ocean City Beach Patrol said that the closing of the surf would enable the beach patrol to get people out of the way in the unforeseen instance that a boat would suddenly come ashore.

Kovacs also pointed out that the time of year in which the event is taking place might make closing the surf for a few hours a bit inconsequential.

“The water will probably be about 60 degrees so kids might be the only ones that would stay out there for hours, but adults will probably just get wet and get out,” he said.

Mayor Rick Meehan stressed that the important thing will be to educate the public that the area of beach will not be closed, but the surf will on that Sunday.

“As long as we let people know in advance what is going to take place, there should be no problem,” he said.

It should also be noted that the Geico Offshore Gran Prix in Ocean City will be shown on the Speed Channel as well as broadcast on ESPN radio.