Like a teenager getting dressed for her junior prom, I felt giddy with anticipation. I carried my weathered beach chair onto the Cape May promenade, took a deep breath of salty air, and prepared to greet my date. This time around, it wasn’t a pimply faced 12th-grader in a too-small tuxedo I felt excited to see, but an old friend.
This is how most Cape May locals regard the beach – as an old friend, a faithful companion always there to uplift and reassure. We find the consistency of the beach comforting and the beauty of it humbling. We frequent it as religiously as we apply our Coppertone sunblock and, when someone interferes with our seaside serenity, it’s an offense as egregious as spiking the prom night punch.
On this particular beach day, as I watched a seagull marvel over a clam by the water’s edge, the woman sitting in front of me took off her sarong. In an itty-bitty thong bikini, she launched into a no-holds-barred yoga routine. Even the seagull couldn’t help but turn away from his shell in order to cock his head in awe. As the woman practiced downward facing dog and one-legged king-pigeon, I assumed my own position – disgruntled beach-goer.
For a moment, I questioned whether I had a right to feel irritated. Maybe, I thought, if I became a thong-wearing yogi myself, I wouldn’t be so quick to anger. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the beach does not exempt one from proper social behaviors. I figured that if I asked other beach patrons, they’d find it just as inappropriate as I had. Thong-yoga definitely violates an unspoken code of beach etiquette… doesn’t it?
“Nah,” Andrew said, “that’s just added entertainment.” As I sat on the couch belonging to this man and his fiancée, Jahanna, I began to wonder if beach etiquette might not be as black and white a concept as I’d initially assumed. One beach patron’s annoyance, it turns out, might just be another’s amusement. “If you come to the beach wearing something wildly inappropriate,” Andrew said, “you’ve just brightened my day.”
Andrew and Jahanna, an attractive couple in their mid-20s, are avid beach-goers. Even if I’d never seen them in action with my own eyes (setting up camp by 10am on summer mornings, lugging coolers full of watermelon and turkey sandwiches, turning bronzer than a couple of pennies), I could have guessed it from the look of their home. A North Cape May cottage that smells of vanilla-flavored surf wax, the house exudes the mellow energy of a day on the beach.
Looking at Jahanna from across the converted ship’s door that serves as her coffee table, I asked what, if not wearing silly attire, constitutes improper beach behavior. She mentioned littering, blocking the view of someone who arrives before you, and shaking the sand from a towel upwind of someone else. But the most atrocious thing one can do? “Sitting on top of other people,” Jahanna said, without skipping a beat, “definitely.”
“Especially,” Andrew chimed in, “when it’s a family of offenders with an obnoxious amount of stuff – a tent, a swimming pool for the kids, the reclining beach chairs with all the cup holders, every size bucket there ever could be and, you know, four beach balls.” I looked at Andrew for a moment, trying to process the list he’d just rattled off. He smiled and then, as if wanting to sum it up for me a bit more succinctly, said, “It’s a whole lot of Aqua Socks and pastiness.”
To reinforce the importance of valuing someone’s personal space, Andrew then told me the story of a beach-goer who’d encircled himself with five miniature orange cones. Inside the cones, he’d built a wall of sand to keep others out. “I admired his candor,” Andrew told me. I pictured the miniature fortress and I wondered who should be responsible for enforcing beach protocol. Maybe we should all be bringing miniature cones to the beach.
“I don’t think,” Jahanna said, “that it can be enforced anymore than saying please and thank you.” Andrew nodded his head in agreement, but I wasn’t convinced this is true. I decided to get a second opinion from someone whose job it is to pay attention on the beach.
Admittedly, I was skeptical about talking to a lifeguard, at least a male one. I’ve known entire beach patrols more concerned with watching out for string bikinis than for swimmers. These guys, as easy on the eyes as they may be, have a bit of a reputation – tan, toned, and totally the frat boys of the beach – and frat boys aren’t exactly known for their etiquette.
I met Justin Nash at Lucky Bones restaurant where, at 6’7”, he needed to duck under the archway leading to our table. Physically, Justin fits the lifeguarding bill – broad shoulders, an adorably dimpled smile, and the kind of hazel eyes that will make a girl stutter.
But as we climbed into our booth, I realized that Justin is more than just a handsome face. He told me that he’s been studying literature at Stockton College, and that he’s just finished reading a book by Goethe for class. Okay, I wanted to say, but what can you tell me about etiquette? Instead, I took a bite of my over-easy egg sandwich, causing egg yolk to shoot all over my shirt and jeans. I blushed, but Justin just shrugged as if to say: it happens. Quietly, because he didn’t want to embarrass me further, he pointed to my ponytail and said, “It’s, um, in your hair and, um, on your face.” There’s no polite way to tell someone that they have egg on their face – literally – but somehow, Justin managed. I began to rethink my lifeguard stereotype. After all, what is etiquette if not politeness? When I finished rinsing my lunch off of me, Justin and I got down to my most pressing questions.
Turns out, lifeguard credentials include quite a bit more than being macho or looking good in a pair of Birdwell’s. Justin described an intense running schedule, ocean swims from Poverty to the Cove, CPR training and surf dashing. Then he described some of the more perilous rescues he’s been a part of. I got so involved with stories about sweeping rip currents, I nearly forgot to ask about beach etiquette from the perspective of a guard. What I learned from Justin is that it has just as much to do with common sense as it does with following the rules.
“People often put their infants in danger,” Justin told me, “because they carry them into the water. One woman tried to tell me this would be fine because she’s such a good swimmer, but how is that going to help if she ends up losing her kid?” Bringing a newborn deep into the ocean seemed like a fairly obvious offense to me, so I asked Justin about some other no-brainers. “You’d be shocked,” he told me, “how many people try to get away with having sex on the beach.” Yep, I nodded, that certainly falls under the umbrella of no-brainer beach transgressions.
But Justin is also responsible for regulating some less obviously forbidden activities, like paddle ball playing (it’s not allowed near the water) and digging holes that might cave in on a child or prevent an emergency vehicle from accessing an injured person. And then there’s that whole yoga in a thong issue. “If somebody complains,” he told me, “it’s my job to make sure she puts some more clothes on.” In fact, Justin is responsible for fielding all sorts of complaints, from people annoyed about everything from seagull feeding to loud-music playing.
I asked Justin if enforcing beach etiquette ever got old. I wanted to know if he ever became the guy causing trouble instead of squashing it. “Well,” he laughed, “lifeguards get away with a lot more stuff than most.” On calm days, he explained, you might catch a lifeguard squirting beach patrons with a water pistol or, just for laughs, blowing the whistle at anyone who comes near the banana peel he’s placed in front his stand. And when someone nonsensically asks what time the dolphins will be out, a guard might offer an equally nonsensical answer. (“Whatever time the coast guard lets them…”) Sometimes, it seems, foregoing etiquette can be all in good fun.
I wanted to know if there is any part of the job that isn’t so fun, any rule that Justin doesn’t agree with enforcing. He paused only for a moment. “I would have to say the ‘no drinking’ rule,” he decided, “because if people are discreet about it and not being rambunctious, drinking in moderation should be fine.” I wondered if Justin might be right. Perhaps if people were permitted to break open a bottle of bubbly, they wouldn’t be so stressed about things like paddle ball or other people’s itty-bitty bikinis.
Later that day, while washing the egg out of my hair, I realized that most of my discussion with Justin had centered on rules. The unspoken code of beach etiquette I’d set out to determine, I realized, might not be so unspoken after all. Chapter 158 of the City guidebook, the section dedicated to beaches and boardwalks, is eleven pages worth of definitively spoken rules. As I leafed through, I noticed, in between “no defecating” and “no cooking,” a rule against disporting. Because I had no idea what this means, I wondered if I, myself, might in fact be a disporter. Had I been violating some important piece of beach etiquette without even realizing it? Was the yogi I’d been so quick to judge feeling the same distaste for me and my unconscionable disportion?
The word, as it turns out, means to make merry, move in gayety, or play boisterously. So what? The city of Cape May is staunchly anti-merrymaking? That’s the reputation that seemed to reign in 2005 at least, when the city made national news by lifting its 30-year ban on Speedo wearing. The story appeared in Sports Illustrated and USA Today, and Cape May, for having had such a ban in the first place, became the butt of jokes nationwide. Even Ed Helms of “The Daily Show” poked fun in a mini-mockumentary by saying, “Atlantic City has gambling, Wildwood has broken bottle fights, and Cape May… has Speedos.”
Speedos, and a whole lot of rules. Hoping she might shed some light on the driving force behind a list of regulations 11 pages long, I contacted the Cape May Chief of Police, Diane Sorantino. “It may seem a little overboard to people and I can understand that,” she told me. This was not the uptight response I’d anticipated from the Chief of Police. “There are a lot of rules,” she continued, “but we have a lot of discretion when it comes to enforcement. No harm, no foul.” Definitely not the response I’d anticipated. “It’s pretty impossible to be aware of every rule, even for us,” the Chief explained, “We’re not a walking guidebook, and certainly the general public isn’t either.” Definitely, definitely not the response I’d anticipated.
Secretly, I’d been hoping for a couple of outlandish stories. Maybe a local once beat up a tourist for feeding the seagulls? Maybe a group of teenagers once got arrested for throwing a kegger while wearing Speedos, playing paddle ball, and disporting? No such luck. “Police involvement is minimal,” the Chief told me, “most people are great.”
Okay then, so why all the rules? “These are here for a reason – to keep people safe – that’s what we strive for. What we have is fair; it’s pretty standard.” It’s also, apparently, etiquette-driven. “I think a lot of time,” the Chief told me, “etiquette and rules go hand in hand. Kind of like playing golf.”
But golf, I thought to myself, is a sport that doesn’t change. A birdie today will be a birdie tomorrow. Etiquette isn’t quite so fixed. As the times change, so do cultural norms. In Cape May, after all, it was once required that men and women wear woolen bathing suits and swim at different times, something that would be unheard of today. I wondered if Cape May is a city that can roll with the times. “Revamping ordinances that are outdated,” the Chief told me, “is a major undertaking, but we do it.” In 2005, for example, it wasn’t just Speedos making the nightly news. The city also opened more beaches up to kayaking and instituted a five-minute grace period for parking meters. And if someone still doesn’t agree with an ordinance? “City hall doesn’t turn people away,” the Chief said, “someone will hear your complaint.”
This is all well and good, I figured, as long as the people responsible for updating existing beach ordinances are beach-goers themselves. Otherwise, it’s no different than me, a beach patron, establishing rules for police officers. If I’ve never worn the uniform, how can I know what’s important? As if sensing my skepticism, the Chief reinforced for me her own appreciation for the beach. “I don’t get there often,” she said, “but when I do, I constantly wonder how it came to be that I have such a beautiful beach at my disposal.”
Beautiful, indeed. So beautiful, in fact, it makes one wonder if an investigation into pet-peeves of the beach isn’t a silly one after all. Perhaps the man on the next towel over is sucking on his fudgsicle or talking on his cell phone a bit too loudly. Perhaps the kid by the water is sticking jellyfish bits in her ears while standing on your towel. Perhaps the only men taking advantage of the relatively new Speedo policy are 400 pounds and hairy. But if we allow these things to ruin a day in beautiful Cape May, perhaps we only have ourselves to blame.
Then again, beach etiquette isn’t all about pet peeves. There have to be some behaviors that are downright dangerous, too. As a Cape May firefighter and lifeguard of 13 years, Ed Zebrowski has seen all kinds of close calls on the beach – everything from the crash of a banner plane to a fellow guard struck by lightning. And he’s seen injuries caused by things a great deal more preventable.
“If there are waves breaking right on shore,” Ed told me as we sat at a wooden table in the firehouse, “that tends to really increase the chance of spinal injuries.” I nodded at Ed, so tall, dark, and handsome in his navy EMT uniform, that I had trouble keeping myself from smiling, even when talking about as grave an issue as paralysis. “People shouldn’t be body surfing head first without their hands out in front.”
According to Ed, some of the riskier beach behaviors in which people engage are the product of holiday-induced foolishness. “People tend to check their brains at the bridge when they get into Cape May,” he said, “and I’m sure I do the same thing when I go away. On vacation, people may not exercise the best judgment.” I couldn’t argue there – the last time I left town, I found myself ignoring a “Keep Off The Jetty” sign while more than a little tipsy. Remembering the bummer that was my own sprained ankle, I wondered what else foolhardy day-trippers do. Apparently, they nearly impale fellow beach-goers with the pointy end of multi-colored sun umbrellas. “Move to the shade,” Ed said, “don’t move the shade to you. Once you start doing that, an umbrella can take off like a sail.”
Often times headstrong beach patrons have no interest in being told how to plant their shade or do anything else for that matter. “Hey,” Ed said, “they’re red-blooded Americans.” Thinking it harmless to ignore the lifeguard’s whistle, folks often swim out farther than allowed. “You let them know they can’t go out that far and they don’t understand why. Well, it’s because they’re going to get themselves in trouble, or chopped up by a boat that goes by.”
Ouch. Talk about a ruined beach day. I wondered if constantly dealing with the ignorance of Cape May bathers spoils the fun of an off-duty beach day for a rescue worker. But Ed assured me it doesn’t. “I have the best jobs in the world,” he said.
It seems as though for Ed – as well as for Chief Sorantino, Justin, Jahanna, Andrew, and all beach enthusiasts – it all comes back to the true-but-hackneyed mantra printed on coffee mugs and key chains in beach town trinket shops everywhere: a bad day at the beach beats a good day anywhere else. And though we all have opinions on what it means to be courteous and aware, beach etiquette might just be a bit too subjective to define. And maybe this is okay. Perhaps beach etiquette, like a thong bikini or the controversial Speedo, will just never be one size fits all.
10 THINGS TO REMEMBER
1. Don’t Mess With The Wildlife
Whether it’s feeding the seagulls, digging for clams, or trying to pet the dolphins that frequent Cape May’s waters, beach-goers are drawn to wildlife. But interacting with animals can be irksome for your fellow beach patrons (the ones being pooped on by the gulls you feed), and it can be dangerous, too. In the past five years, there have been 24 reported dolphin attacks worldwide. Rule of thumb? If it’s covered in fins, feathers, or a protective shell – stay away!
2. Move On Over
Researchers from the California Institute of Technology have discovered that, except in cases of intimacy, human beings are hard-wired to repel close human contact. According to anthropologist Edward T. Hall, in order for the average American to feel totally at ease in a public setting he needs 12 feet of personal space. Be mindful of where you plant that boogie board, because these invisible comfort zones do not disappear on the beach.
3. Cover Up
The creator of the bikini, Louis Reard, introduced his suit in 1946, just after World War II came to an end. Knowing that bare midriffs would create a shock as profound as that from nuclear testing, Reard named his suit for Bikini Atoll, the South Pacific reef where the first peace-time atomic bomb was dropped. But the last thing a beach-goer wants is for the folks on the next towel over to feel as though, after viewing her choice of attire, they’ve been bombed. When it comes to that itty bitty yellow polka dot bikini, less is not always more.
4. Do Not Dig To China
Whether you want your sandcastle to have a mote, or you’re looking to bury your annoying little brother in the dunes, you’re going to need to dig. This may seem harmless enough, but the walls of a hole dug on the beach can easily collapse inward. Harvard researcher Bradley Moran, who has been tracking sand collapse related injuries for the past 10 years, recommends digging no more than knee-deep, and always filling a hole back in when you’re done.
5. Move to the shade – not the other way around.
With celebrities like Nicole Kidman announcing they’re “proud to be pale,” and trendy magazines like Cosmopolitan praising the porcelain, beach-goers are wising up about sun safety. While every good beach bunny knows the secret to healthy skin is taking a break from UV rays, it’s equally important to know how to keep one’s shade from going airborne. The Cape May Beach Patrol recommends tilting an umbrella into the wind, and planting one-third of its pole into the sand.
6. Watch Those Kids!
When it comes to violating beach etiquette, little kids can be big culprits. Nothing puts a damper on a peaceful seaside retreat like a squealing, splashing, sand-throwing youngster. But what’s more egregious is the parents who aren’t watching after their little sand monsters. The beach may be the world’s greatest playground, but even playgrounds must have rules.
7. Listen To The Lifeguards
Cape May lifeguards are no strangers to partying hard, but don’t let this fool you. The members of this patrol are just as adept at spotting danger as they are at playing beer pong. So pay attention to their whistles, don’t venture too far from a stand and, for Pete’s sake, stay off the jetty!
8. If You’re Going To Play, Be Out Of The Way
The term “beach bum” does not apply to those who have a hard time sitting still on the sand. Beach games are a popular way to expend some energy (the average paddle ball game burns over 400 calories per hour), but they can be bothersome to fellow patrons. So, if you’re one of the ten million Americans who can’t resist a game of horseshoes, you’ve got your heart set on a round of bocce, or you’re just in the mood for some good old-fashioned rough-housing with your buddies, remember to take your play out of the way.
9. Leave The Pets At Home
They may call them the dog days of summer, but your pup isn’t always welcome on the beach. According to the Cape May guidebook, no animal is permitted between Third Avenue and the intersection of Madison Avenue and the beach.
10. Have Fun
The most important thing to remember about a day on the beach in Cool Cape May is to enjoy it. Breathe deep, laugh hard, and savor the memories.
STRANGE BEACH RULES FROM AROUND THE WORLD
Years ago, citing the long lists of regulations that greeted patrons as they approached the promenade, the Philadelphia Inquirer labeled Cape May beaches as “no fun.” While the signs might be friendlier now, the rules remain. The Cape May guide book prohibits everything from pogo-sticking to the depositing of crockery on beach groins (huh?). With restrictions so thorough, a day on the beach in Cape May might seem like anything but a day on the beach. But Cape May is not the only silly rule culprit. So grab your sunblock and a seat by the water, and enjoy reading these, the goofiest of beach rules from around the globe…
Everyone hopes for that proverbial summer romance, but there’s very little summer lovin’ happening under the boardwalks of South Africa. On the beaches here, young people wearing bathing suits are prohibited from sitting less than 12 inches apart.
It’s not uncommon to catch a Cape May resident complaining about the parking meter he had to feed before catching some rays on the beach. Florida residents must pay to park as well – and not just their cars, but their elephants, too. Overseas, Israel is no friendlier toward oversized pets. It’s illegal there to bring your bear onto the beach.
South Carolina law is equally concerned with animals. On Hilton Head Island, it is illegal to shine a flashlight in the face of a sea turtle.
We’ve all heard the rule about staying out of the water for at least an hour after eating. But the state of New Jersey has taken this piece of advice one step further – by making it illegal to eat while in the water. Talk about a sandy lunch! And if you do get caught sneaking a salad in the surf, don’t frown at the police officer coming your way: that’s illegal, too.
It’s hard to look like a beach bunny in Brighton Beach, Australia, where only knee-to-neck swimsuits are allowed. But clothing restrictions don’t stop there –there are no hot-pink shorts permitted after noon on Sundays, either.
California beaches may not be a favorite of musicians (there are no drums allowed on the sand in Santa Monica), but hunters have lots of freedom here. Shooting whales is totally legal, if done from the window of a moving vehicle.
The beach may be a relaxing place, but don’t even think about dozing off in Delaware. Even pretending to nap on the boardwalk is a crime in Rehoboth Beach.
Let’s hope that the Hawaiians of Honolulu don’t get sea sick: it’s required by law that everyone here owns a boat.
The summer months might be the best time for bronzing, but all the men of Maryland are getting is a farmer’s tan. No bare backs are allowed on the boardwalk here. It’s also illegal to scooter shirtless on the beaches of Thailand.
Miami Beach may seem like the perfect destination for wild and crazy spring breakers, but be careful; even party beaches have their rules. In Miami, it is illegal to bring a pig onto the beach.