Sorry, the beach is out of bounds

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2008, 12:00am

New York

Some may complain about the heat and humidity of what is arguably New York's best season, but the outdoor cafes, movies under the stars and concerts on the grass may counter that. The city's 20km of beaches are the clincher. They hosted 16 million visitors last summer and are expected to exceed that figure this year.

'We always anticipate crowds on hot days, but especially now with the high cost of gas, we encourage all New Yorkers to take mass transit where possible and spend a day at one of the city's beaches,' said Cristina DeLuca, a spokeswoman for the Parks Department.

For a big city, the beaches are surprisingly clean and the water is enticing for surfers and swimmers.

But beware: not all beaches allow swimming. Even for people who live at the oceanfront, taking a dip in the sea can lead to fines and even jail. This is what happened to Anthony DiCiervo. The father of three, who lives one block from the Rockaway Beach in Queens, told the Daily News he was issued a summons and held in jail at the end of last month because he waded ankle-deep along the seashore on one of the hottest days this summer.

The beach was not open because there were no lifeguards on duty. And the melee ensued only after Mr DiCiervo repeatedly ignored warnings from Parks Department patrols, the agency said.

But many New Yorkers are not able to use beaches near their homes. 'We've had reports from residents that a number of beaches have been closed the last few days,' said Jonathan Gaska, a Rockaway resident.

Mr Gaska, a frequent ocean swimmer, said the beaches closest to subway stops that are populated by visitors from other parts of the city are less likely to suffer from a lifeguard shortage than those mainly used by residents.

'A primary reason people buy houses in Rockaway is they love the beach, and people are deeply disappointed when their beaches are closed,' he said.

A shortage of lifeguards has been haunting the city for years, and this year is no different. The Parks Department so far has hired 1,062 lifeguards, and it expected more to join as students finished high school last week. Ms DeLuca of the Parks Department said this was among the highest number of lifeguards the agency had hired.

But originally department officials had said they aimed to hire 1,200 for this summer and the city even looked into the possibility of extending beach hours beyond 6pm.

It will not happen. State law requires one lifeguard for every 41 metres of beach that is open for swimming and lifeguards can only work 48 hours a week. The current number of lifeguards is not enough to keep all the beaches open for regular hours, let alone the extended hours.

Controversy over the lifeguard issue mounted last year when the city council held several public hearings to examine the recruitment process, which politicians, observers and some lifeguards say lacks transparency.

The lifeguards' union, which is in charge of recruitment, is blamed for holes in training. And observers argue that in a time of economic uncertainty, recruits should not be hard to find.

Tomorrow: London