Surf's Up: Surfing Makes a Big Splash at Public Beaches

By Bastone, Kelly | Parks & Recreation, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Surf's Up: Surfing Makes a Big Splash at Public Beaches


Bastone, Kelly, Parks & Recreation


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Surfing is the sexiest of sports. Like movie stars and rock singers, surfers rank among the Beautiful People, captivating the American imagination with their sun-kissed features and ocean-hardened physiques. The surf lifestyle embodies freedom and a live-for-the-moment spontaneity. After all, everyone--even those who reside thousands of miles from the beach--knows that "Surf's up!" is a rally cry heeded instantly, not in a little while after your morning appointment. And surf-inspired fashions filter far beyond the water to inland cities where flip-flops and floral prints signal summer fun, even without the waves.

Beach parks benefit from the cachet that comes with surfing. Non-surfers enjoy watching athletes pop up on their boards and ride the waves. And retail stores often crop up near surf beaches and cater to surfers and admirers alike.

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"Some of our most popular commercial retail spots are all about surfing and the surf image," explains Tom Shuster, director of recreation and parks in Ocean City, Md. "Whether someone is a big-time surfer or not, they're happy to wear a surf shop T-shirt and embody a little bit of that surfer lifestyle."

By attracting visitors who are surfers (or who just want to shop like one), surf beaches stimulate the local economy and make a place "cool."

But accommodating surfers while also serving other beach users isn't always easy. Because swimmers can spoil a surfer's ride or get injured by wave-driven surfboards, most parks try to segregate surfers and swimmers by designating special surf beaches or regulating the number of hours surfers can rule the waves.

And in an environment as volatile as the ocean, maintaining visitors' safety is a constant challenge. But most managers agree that supporting surfing is worth the effort. "It's part of our local culture" says Shuster. "Surfing makes us unique."

East Meets Wave in Ocean City, Md.

Ocean City occupies a barrier island with more than 10 miles of Atlantic Coast beachfront, and its strong surf makes it one of the most popular surfing spots on the East Coast.

"Typically, people don't think of the East Coast as a surfing mecca," Shuster admits. "We may not have the best, most sustained surf in the nation, but Ocean City is in a prime location to serve surfers from major population centers such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C."

During the summer months, Ocean City's Beach Patrol monitors the shorelines and enforces surfing schedules. Surfing is prohibited between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. except on two rotating surfing beaches where swimmers aren't allowed. Each day, the surfing beaches migrate two blocks north to a new location, where they're marked with yellow flags and patrolled by yellow-clad Surfing Beach Facilitators (SBFs).

The system gives surfers midday surfing opportunities while ensuring that beachfront properties share swimming closures equally. In summer 2007, Ocean City added a third, permanent surfing beach offered exclusively to surfers from Monday through Friday (on weekends, it serves swimmers).

Shuster says, "We did it to satisfy the surfing community, which wanted the regularity of a defined beach location supported by a parking lot."

The pilot project was a huge success, so was made permanent for this year. During foul weather when swimmers shun the beach, SBFs may lift surfing restrictions. And in the early morning before 10 a.m., when the waves tend to be biggest and most swimmers haven't yet hit the beach, all areas are open to surfing.

Ocean City also permits local and national surfing associations to conduct competitions on the beaches, even on weekends when user numbers are highest. "We work closely with the Eastern Surfing Association and the Surfrider Foundation to support the comps, because they fuel the sport as a whole," Shuster says. …

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