Surfers Cheer, Swimmers Sob As Bill Closes Beaches
An unwanted visitor named Bill came to Rockaway last weekend, closing the beaches to all but surfers for four days, causing exhilaration to some and trauma to others.
Last Friday, as Hurricane Bill roared far offshore North Carolina's Outer Banks, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and Joseph Bruno, the commissioner of the city's Office of Emergency Management, stood on the boardwalk at Beach 116 Street and announced that all of the city's ocean beaches would be closed until "further notice." For Rockaway, that meant until Tuesday morning, when the beachfront was once again opened to swimming. All of the other city ocean beaches were reopened Monday morning, but a Parks Department official told The Wave that lifeguards on the Rockaway beaches believed that the surf was still too rough for swimmers and they remained closed until 10 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
Benepe said that this was the first time that all of the city's ocean beaches had been closed in recent memory, but that it was necessary in light of the dangerous conditions that Bill would bring, even though it was far offshore.
"As weather conditions are changing quickly, it is imperative that people not enter the water at closed beaches," Benepe said. "As always, beachgoers must obey the instructions of lifeguards, police and other parks security personnel."
He added that surfers would be allowed in the water during the period that the beaches are closed to swimmers.
There was confusion, however, on the part of beachgoers, lifeguards and Park's enforcement police officers on enforcing the ban.
On several occasions, locals were report- edly told that they could not use boogie boards, which are truncated surf boards, on swimming beaches and that they had to go to one of the two designated surfing beaches to use the device. When they got to the surfing beaches, however, they were told that the boogie boards were not considered surfboards and that they could be used on swimming beaches only.
Local Michael Lonnborg told The Wave that he was boogie-boarding at Beach 128 Street on Saturday afternoon with the lifeguard's permission when four green-outfitted Parks Enforcement Police (PEP) officers came by in an ATV and ordered him out of the water.
Lonnborg said that Officer J. Charles stood in his way while he was trying to retrieve his $150 boogie board.
Charles reportedly told him that he didn't care what the board cost, he couldn't go back into the water to retrieve it.
The local said that the officer hit him on the chest with his forearm and closed fist when he tried to retrieve the board.
He was given a $50 ticket by the PEP officers for illegally being in the water, he says. He has brought charges of assault against the PEP officer.
By law, the two surfing-only beaches are not patrolled by lifeguards, and people using them do so at their own risk, but it was unclear whether surfers could use other beaches for surfing when they were closed to swimmers.
Hundreds of surfers, however, were drawn to the surfing beaches as the storm passed offshore.
The raging surf on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning drew surfers from all over the tri-state region to Rockaway, where the waves were often 10 to 12 feet high, officials say.
When night fell on Saturday, it took an army of police using helicopters and boats, as well as Parks Department personnel to pry the surfers from the ocean.
As the copters swept overhead, searchlights plying the raging ocean, Parks officials and police whistled all the surfers out of the water and then off the beach.
On Sunday morning, with hundreds of onlookers lining the boardwalk to watch the high waves and intrepid surfers, one local surfer, Daniel Mastey, 24, of Rockaway Beach, broke both of his legs after venturing onto the rock jetty at Beach 91 Street to launch his surfboard. He was thrown into the rocks by a tremendous wave and tumbled about.
He was taken to Jamaica Hospital for treatment.
Officials say that Mastey was the only local to be injured during the long weekend when the beaches were closed.
During previous weeks, however, six swimmers, all but one swimming on unprotected beaches or when the lifeguards were not on duty, drowned.
Riis Park beaches, controlled by the National Park Service, were closed on Friday as well, but were reopened Monday morning.
Surfing was allowed at Riis Park during the closings.