Catching A Wave Of Tickets
By Howard Schwach
After Rockaway resident Hank Vought jumped into the East River to save a man who had jumped off the 59 Street Bridge a few weeks ago, he told The Wave that "people say that there are two things that you learn if you grow up in Rockaway – how to swim and how to drink."
Vought might have added that people who grow up in Rockaway often also learn to surf.
Vought is one of the many Rockaway residents who is a surfing aficionado. In fact, Tom Sena, the owner of the Rockaway Beach Surf Shop on Beach 116 Street, says that his first surfing experience was on a board that he borrowed from Vought.
Go out on the boardwalk any morning during the summer and early fall months and you are sure to see any number of people out in the surf, waiting for the big wave.
That has been going on for years, but it is about to stop.
Police from the 100 Precinct in Rockaway Beach have been issuing summonses to anybody in the water during the hours that lifeguards are not on duty – and that includes surfers.
The "C" summonses, which are returnable in court, have been issued to anybody found in the water before 9 a.m. or after 6 p.m. – the prime surfing hours.
"We were left alone to do our thing early in the morning and in the evening, when the beaches were empty," one surfing regular, who asked not to be identified, told The Wave. "Now, we have to go to court if we get caught surfing in the morning."
According to sources at the Parks Department, the ticketing blitz is one response to a lawsuit brought by the family of three young girls who drowned in Far Rockaway about a year ago against the city.
Sergeant Michael Wysokowski, a spokesperson for the police department, told reporters that the city is not "targeting surfers."
""Nobody is supposed to be in the water when the lifeguards are not in duty," the sergeant says. "We’re looking to save lives and protect the city from liability."
While Captain Charles Talamo, the commanding officer of the 100 Precinct was on vacation and unavailable for comment, an officer at the precinct told The Wave that the "tickets are not for surfing, they are for not obeying the signs, not obeying the rules."
"The summonses are similar to the ones given for drinking or urinating in public," he added.
The crackdown has not made many of Rockaway’s surfers, many of who are police officers and firefighters, happy.
"This is Rockaway," a man who was surfing at Beach 82 Street on Wednesday morning and who asked not to be identified, told The Wave. "We live in Rockaway because the beach is here and the beach means surfing."
"The city hurts good people and chases them to Nassau County," he added. "The police and the city are taking away all of our rights to do the things that make living in Rockaway enjoyable – surfing, riding bikes on the boardwalk, and lots of other things."
City Councilman Joe Addabbo, who chairs the parks committee, is trying to work out a compromise that would allow surfers one beach to surf on without incurring the city’s wrath.
"We really want to work this out," he told The Wave. "There are hundreds of surfers, and their needs need to be met."
"The problem is," he adds, "we have to do that without increasing the city’s liability. If we allow surfers in the water when the lifeguards are not on duty and one of them gets hurt, the city is liable and lots of people want to sue the city."
Addabbo sees a plan where one beach would be set aside for surfers only. People who surf on that beach would have to sign a statement each time that they will not sue the city if something untoward happens to them while they are surfing.
"That would allow the surfers to do their thing and would not leave the city liable," Addabbo says.
"For years, there was a cooperative existence between the police and the surfers," Addabbo adds. "Now, we have almost an antagonistic environment, and we don’t want that to happen."
Lawyers for the Parks Department are looking at Addabbo’s plan to see if it is legal and if it would keep the city safe from liability.
Meanwhile, those who use the ocean when lifeguards are not on duty will continue to get summonses, according to police sources.