With the anticipation that Ocean City’s surf beach review committee will be functional by the end of the week, the expectation from local surfers is already clear: the resort will have to be more flexible to accommodate the growing popularity of surfboarding on the East Coast.
“Surfing has become a lot more popular over the last couple years,” said long-time local surfer and surf photographer Nick Denny. “That’s the real issue … you’ve got a mix with the summer crowd, where it’s [the visitors’] first time on a surf board.”
At last week’s meeting, the City Council voted to table the adoption of next year’s surf beach schedule and authorize a committee to review the policy, with Councilman Dennis Dare citing popular demand that the current system was inconvenient for both surfers and other beachgoers
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said this week that he has contacted several possible members in the surfing and surf business community, and hopes to have a committee together by the end of the week.
“If they didn’t want to make the change, they wouldn’t have tabled it and we’d be talking about the same thing this time next year,” said Ocean City firefighter and surf enthusiast Mick Chester, who has already been tapped for the committee. “The new council has been very proactive so far, which is good.”
For the last 15 to 20 years, by Meehan’s recollection, the city has had a rotating surfing beach schedule. This system limits summer daytime surfboard use to two select blocks of beach, which change daily, as well as a section of the inlet on weekdays only.
Proper surf boards – those with fins or those over 54 inches long – are prohibited elsewhere on city beaches from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and specifically along Boardwalk-adjacent beaches from May 1 to Sept. 30.
But confining surfers to pre-determined areas betrays the nature of the sport, surfers say. A whole block may be open, but the waves are more selective.
“Basically, there’s only a couple of break spots,” Denny said. “The way the waves break, you’re looking at one or two peaks … you’re talking about throwing all the people into one spot with only two places to actually surf.”
Furthermore, the best breaks are typically on the southern end of the island. Because the north end has a straighter coastline and less undulation, waves tend to break right at the shoreline and are less suited to long rides on a board.
“They throw a surf beach up there and it never gets used,” Denny said. “Then you get 80 people in the water at the one other block.”
“In the summer, we do get more of a southern swell. Then, in the winter when we have Nor’easters, swells come from the north,” Chester said. “Generally, north Ocean City is not the best during the summer.”
Much of the impetus for council’s recent interest may have been due to Chester’s online petition, entitled “Expand the Surfing Beaches in Ocean City, Maryland: Give surfers more freedom to surf our beaches.’
Available via www.change.org, Chester’s petition requests that the city expand surf beaches up to 2.5 blocks, instead of a single block, to reduce summer crowding.
“They herd us up like cattle in these little blocks … you’ll have locals who are experienced, as well as people for whom it’s their first time on a surfboard,” Chester said. “It’s dangerous, and I think they’re starting to realize that.”
“I’ve had fins go across my back, been cut up, had friends cut by fins,” Denny said. “A lot of the older guys don’t even go to the surf beach anymore.”
Besides expanding the size of the beaches, the consensus also seems to be that the Ocean City Beach Patrol should have more leeway in determining who is and is not making use of the beach at any given time.
Under the city’s code, the OCBP’s leadership has the ability to declare a “modified” surf schedule if it is observed that surfing outside of the two designated blocks would not present a problem because there is a low concentration of bathers on the beach.
The pitfall of this, Chester pointed out, is that it is a blanket rule that applies to all 9 miles of the resort coastline.
“They modify the beach a lot in the spring and in the fall,” Chester said. “But say there are 100 people one place up north in the water, and none south, they’re still not going to modify the beach.”
Chester’s suggestion would be to divide the beach into several sections, so that one section could be on a modified schedule while others are not.
The OCBP, Chester said, already divides the beach into quadrants for supervision and patrol purposes.
Denny also recommended that OCBP staff be given more leeway in where surf beaches start and end, since drift currents and laterally breaking waves, which provide the best rides, make it difficult to stay in a defined area.
“You’ll paddle out on one side, and by the time you’re out there you’re, all the way to the other side because the current is so hard,” Denny said. “I think they should be more lenient, when there are good waves, to let guys surf on the outside and make the swimmers aware.”
Denny also said that in the long term, the city might want to think about changing the structure of the beach.
In order to maintain the coastal buffer, the city periodically pumps sand out from the shallows and back up onto the beach. But Denny said that this dredging ruins the natural formation of sandbars parallel to the coastline that cause waves to break further out.
“They’re kind of like a median,” he said. “When I was younger, we used to have tide pools and the waves would break further out. Everything comes in so close now [since beach replenishment began].”
A long-term fix is critical, Denny said, because the demand will only increase before it wanes.
“I really think, every summer, you’re going to see more and more surfers,” he said. “Same thing with skateboarding. You’re going to see more and more because [the sports] are getting so huge.”