1999-07-10 / Letters

Surfer Says Cooperate

Dear Editor;

Independence Day was celebrated at Rockaway Beach with the typical flurry of barbecue smog, balloons, and waders frolicking in the bath warm water. Two good friends and I had the gumption to catch some waves on our surfboards but were greeted beachfront by a swarm of bathers coagulated at the shore of the official surfing beach between Beach 88 and 89 streets. This presented a dangerous situation for them. Seldom do surfers let their precious vessels escape their immediate vicinity, but bumps and bruises are occasionally inflicted upon those not agile enough to escape the path of an errantly traveling board. Two locals from the Dominican Republic discussed the danger, and concluded that surfing east of the 88/89 jetty would be the safest place to pursue a days recreation. Lifeguards keep the area 30 or so yards near the rocks devoid of swimmers as a current is alleged to lurk there which might suck someone inexperienced with nautical ways into them.

Knowing that surfing is officially prohibited in the space between jetties 88 and 87, my reasonable friend inquired as to whether we would be whistled at by lifeguards if we surfed there. The five of us consulted with the lifeguards at the 88/89 tower who agreed that bringing surfboards into the sanctioned surfing beach would likely injure someone. The guard on the tower suggested we ask the youth presiding over the 88/87 beach if we could surf there, but was pessimistic as to whether our request would be granted, saying their boss would become irate if he were to look out and find people surfing in the undesignated area.

When I asked the guard at the tower in question if we could ride waves in the safe area near the jetty he was emphatic in stating that the rules were staid and surfing was expressly forbidden there. He also deferred final responsibility in making the decision to Al, his boss, who was to be found in the shack next to the bathrooms. Al informed me that every year surfers approach him with the same dilemma and that he invariably denies permission to surf in the area known by local surfers as "The Box."

"There’s no swimming allowed in the surfing beach, but if you put a sign up that says no swimming, or a sign that says no surfing, someone’s going to rip it down. What can we do?" He motioned towards the 100-odd people leaping through the whitewash in the surfing beach.

"So since you can’t enforce no swimming at the surfing beach you can’t really enforce no surfing in the swimming beach?" I surmised aloud.

"Yeah, I guess." He agreed with considerable resignation.

By this time my friends were already in the water, attempting to dodge the hordes wading in the surfing beach. My reasonable friend, a surfer with 22 years of experience from Venice, California precariously threaded his way through roosts of swimmers, barely missing them with his 30 pound, nine foot, foam, wood and fiberglass plank. Other surfers were catching waves, settling in for their ride and then leaping off before causing collisions. The Dominican brothers and I decided to paddle around the jetty and ride in the safe area, my two friends paddled after us.

When we made our way around the rocks at the end of the jetty we were greeted with small, fast waves that took us to where the jetty meets the sand. The rides were clean, better that most surfers hope for on a summer day with little swell and onshore winds. Since the area is kept clear of swimmers there was no danger of injuring anyone. Immediately the beach patrols sprang into action. A young lifeguard was dispensed to retrieve a rescue board, an immensely long, red floatation device that is used for lifesaving in deeper waters. He paddled around the jetty and motioned for us to desist from surfing. A gaggle of lifeguards and supervisors collected at the shore, tweeting their whistles and waving us in.

Buoyed by the spirit of independence and freedom of America’s largely tolerant and adaptable society, I decided to stay in the water and ignored the fracas. The youth on the rescue board bellowed, "That’s it! You gotta go in now. You got no choice." I thought to myself that it would be impossible for him to physically apprehend me in the water. The rescue boards are buoyant enough to carry two people but prove cumbersome in heavy surf and the guard did not seem particularly adept at handling the vehicle anyway. My four friends had all gone to shore at this point and were engaged in a heated debate. They were told that the police had been called, to use common sense, that it was Fourth of July, crowded and unsafe. "I am using my common sense, I’m going to hit somebody over there, it’s good here and there’s nobody that’s going to get hit!" One of the Dominican brothers replied. They were told that the police had been called and to return to 88/89.

Realizing that the tumult created by the shrieking lifeguards and their ubiquitous whistles was disturbing those attempting to enjoy the holiday, I caught a hollow left hand wave to the beach. The waves had picked up a little outside between 89 and 91 so we surfed there for the rest of the day. We enjoyed ourselves but came precariously close to colliding with swimmers.

The ocean changes every day. One day the water will seem still as a lagoon, the next brings 10 foot waves crashing over the jetty. Since lifeguards stare at the water from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., every day, from Memorial Day through Labor Day, they should be able to discern where people can be safe swimming and surfing. A line of surfers deeper out to sea also provides a valuable safety net for swimmers who get sucked out farther than they can handle. Perhaps surfers and lifeguards could communicate on busy days and find a place where surfboards wouldn’t endanger those just cooling off.

Banning surfing at Rockaway Beach would bring economic toil to business-folk who depend on surfers for patronage year round in local shops and restaurant. When the masses are home hibernating for the winter, surfers arrive in droves at the first gust of a hurricane or westerly wind. Both surfers and swimmers have a right to enjoy the public beaches. With flexibility and communication, compromises can be reached. Rules are not necessarily made to be broken, but amended to fit the needs of the people they are intended to protect.

John Veit

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