Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Surfers Upset over 2 Weekend Beach Closures; Officials Defend Decision, Citing Safety Concerns

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Surfers Upset over 2 Weekend Beach Closures; Officials Defend Decision, Citing Safety Concerns

Article excerpt

Byline: Drew Dixon, Shorelines staff writer

Some Jacksonville-area surfers are furious over a decision to close two popular beaches to wave riders Saturday because of big waves and wind, which surfers consider among the prime conditions.

Hanna Park, known as "the poles," and Huguenot Park north of the mouth of the St. Johns River were closed to surfers on Saturday, and that has drawn a challenge from the First Coast chapter of Surfrider Foundation.

"This is a big deal," said Surfrider Chairman Scott Shine. He said that in the past 20 years, the two beaches supervised by the Jacksonville Ocean Rescue have been closed only once due to rough surf -- that was during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

A freak summer cold front plowed through North Florida this weekend kicking up larger than normal surf and choppy conditions.

Jack Howell, supervisor of ocean rescue at Huguenot, said that early on Saturday, a surfer was nearly dragged by a current into the St. Johns' north jetty but that lifeguards pulled him out of the water. At that point, Howell decided to shut down the beach to surfing.

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office took swimmers and surfers out of the ocean at Hanna.

"I closed it down on my side, it's a safety issue," Howell said. "I have a responsibility to act. . . . I'm going to have to send somebody out to rescue if something happens.

"I do what I feel is best for the bathing public and that's what I get paid for," Howell said. "If they don't like my judgment call, well, it was on the side of safety. From what I saw out there, the surfers that had been in the water, most of them came out because they were getting beat up.

"That's around the same time we made the rescue and I said, 'That's it. We're going to shut it down,' " Howell said. "I'm damned if I do, I'm damned if I don't."

Shine does not dispute taking measures that protect inexperienced surfers or swimmers. "We are very concerned about safety," he said.

But a National Weather Service advisor0ts and only experienced surfers and swimmers should enter the waters.But a National Weather Service advisory issued Saturday called for a "moderate risk" of rip currents and only experienced surfers and swimmers should enter the waters.

Besides, Shine said, if the same decision was made on beaches in California or Hawaii, sites of some of the largest surf in the United States, surfers would never be able to catch those big waves. Jacksonville Beach lifeguards let surfers enter the water on Saturday, although red warning and no-swimming flags were flying, as they were at Hanna and Huguenot.

"It's part of what we have historically done here for decades," Shine said. "There is an element of risk. The only way to eliminate risk is to close the beaches every day."

While the conditions seemed rough Saturday, Shine said the waves can get much larger during hurricane conditions and raging northeasters in the winter, but that surfers flock to those conditions. …

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