Beach Replenishment – From The Guard Chair

Beach Replenishment – Part II, continuation of “Beach Replenishment – A Perspective from an Old Salt”.

I saw Mrs. S standing on the shoreline staring at the ocean looking quite upset. I became acquainted with Mrs. S nearly 30 years ago as a young lifeguard. She was always very nice to me and we would exchange pleasantries whenever we would see each other on the beach. Over the many summers I spent lifeguarding, I got to know her as she would catch me up every spring on the events of her winter back in the city. As a career educator, she and her children would spend their summers at the beach playing in the Ocean. We developed a relationship that lasted from me watching her children grow from little groms into adulthood and the death of her husband just a few years ago. Just after her husband died she informed me that since she was now retired, she was going to be staying at the beach full time. Through it all, she never failed to tell me how good it felt to get back to the beach and get her toes in the sand. So when I saw her upset I was concerned and I went over to see if everything was OK.

When I asked Mrs. S what was wrong, all she said was “Just look what they have done, they’ve ruined it”. “Ruined What Mrs. S?” I asked. “The Beach!” From years watching Mrs. S, I knew that she enjoyed walking out to about knee deep and allowing the gentle waves to roll over her feet. She would then splash water up on her legs, body and face to cool off and return to her chair. She went on to explain to me that a couple of days previously, she went down to the shoreline to stick her feet in the water. Not long after, an incoming wave raced up the steep incline and when the backwash returned towards the next incoming wave, it washed her feet out from underneath her, knocking her down and pulling her towards the impact zone. She explained that she couldn’t get to her feet because of the pull of the water and she felt helpless and scared. Luckily, a lifeguard came to help her but she was now worried to go any closer to the shoreline for fear of losing her footing.

My conversation with Mrs. S and yet another morning watching backwash from the surf sweep the legs from underneath small children and older adults and pulling them towards the waves crashing on shore compelled me to write a follow up to my previous article, “Beach Replenishment – A Perspective from an Old Salt”.

Since writing that article, I have been asked a lot of questions about my thoughts on the differences before and after beach replenishment and what could be done to improve the situation? *From a lifeguard’s perspective, the biggest difference is on what we must focus on. Prior to beach replenishment, the most important skills necessary to be a good lifeguard were a good working understanding of the Ocean and the ability to anticipate trouble before it happened. These were the primary tools of a beach lifeguard. Understanding wave action and currents along was critical. The severe slope of the beach has changed that. Now the most important assets are athletic ability and reaction time. Because there are no more sand bars to absorb the impact of incoming waves before they crash directly on shore, the area from west to east from the shoreline to outside the break is much smaller and much more congested, often only a distance of mere feet.

Where once there was a gentle slope where one could wade ankle deep to knee or thigh deep and others could venture out into the break to ride waves or further out to swim past the break, there is now a small area on one side or the other of the impact zone. The impact zone is the turbulent area where the backwash meets the incoming wave like washing machine. On one side of the impact zone there is the risk of waves slamming you on the sand or the backwash knocking your feet out from under you. On the other, you are in water that is over the head of a young child.

It has been said about lifeguarding that the job consists of long stretches of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror. With the current configuration of the beach, a lifeguard’s every moment is filled wondering whether the kid who just got his feet swept out from underneath him and is being pulled towards the impact zone will be violently churned and thrown back onto the sand causing injury or whether the backwash will pull him all the way through and then release him past the impact zone but over his head where he may or may not be able to swim. This is happening all along the beach every few seconds. The above scenario happens without any degree of predictability and without regard to any established current or wave patterns, without warning and within mere seconds. So now, the moments of terror last all day.

As for what can be done, since I am not a scientist, I can only provide my perspective based on what little I understand. First and foremost, the biggest problem lies with the slope of the beach. However that issue can be remedied will go a long way to resolving the problem. It is my understanding that Delaware replenished the beach base on a slope of 10:1. This is despite the fact that recommendations are for at least a 20:1. To me, this simply doesn’t make any sense. Officials initially explained that the beach would naturally level out. This obviously hasn’t happened. I question whether the officials fully understood what would happen when the beach is artificially extended past the previous sandbar to a point that used to be 10 to 12 feet of water. In addition, I have been told that the sand Delaware was required to use for its most recent replenishment projects is heavier and courser than what would allow for a natural migration of the sand. One only needs to take a few steps on the beach to realize that the sand now in place is much rougher than what it used to be. New Jersey is using sand that is finer and began with a 20:1 slope on their most recent nourishment projects and they have had much better results. *We need to keep the conversation going and not resign ourselves that there is nothing we can do. Towns are now posting signs that Waves breaking close to shore are customary for this area. This is not the case unless we concede that how the beach is now is normal. Anyone who has visited the beaches in the last 30 years can tell you that what we have now is not the natural state of the beach.

Ron Phillips has been a lifeguard for 32 years and a surfer for 34. In his spare time, he moonlights as an attorney and is a partner in the law firm of MurrayPhillips P.A.

Scroll to Top