Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Opinion: Why New Hampshire Summer Surfing Sucks (and it has nothing to do with the waves)

I'm back after a brief hiatus...and with a topic near and dear to my heart:

So, New Hampshire (and northern New England in general) is not known for consistently great waves. Autumn into winter has been prime time in these parts as long as I've been surfing my waveski, and the frigid winter waters can offer some opportunities - especially for the more discerning among us (48℉ water can make anybody more discerning 😜).Spring storms can drive some decent swells. Summer tends to get a little flat. That being said, occasionally summer waves are OK - even a few feet on the face from time to time. The luxury of surfing without a full wetsuit is a summertime blessing. So, waves are available if you're patient. But, like the title to this post says - New Hampshire sucking has nothing to do with the waves.

I'm going to focus on New Hampshire, but my criticisms can apply more broadly to other New England states. New Hampshire, in my experience, is one of the more egregious states in its flat out discrimination toward surfers. Let's start with the parking.

Rye, New Hampshire beach parking Rye, New Hampshire beach parking permit only
Rye, New Hampshire Beach Parking

New Hampshire has to maximize its revenue from its small coastline, so parking spots are metered at places like The Wall in North Hampton. At least these meters accept a credit card, and allow for a few hours of paid parking. As long as you have a watch, you can safely park for the fee - currently $2/hr. I cannot say the same for farther up the coast. Rye posts signs threatening a $100 fine and the possibility of towing if you park parallel to the loose stone levy along Sawyer's Beach. The signs go up for Memorial Day, and do not come down until after Labor Day. The 30-40 spots are for town permit holders only, and I am unaware of any opportunity to obtain one if you are not a town resident. The number of times I have driven past this stretch and eyeballed dozens of unused parking spots is too many to count. The small lot at Jenness Beach is paid parking, and fills up fast. There are some free spots farther north on Rt. 1A, and on a side street with beach access - but you better make damn sure your tires do not cross the white line on the roadside, or you will be fined by traffic enforcement patrolling on scooters. Look, I understand property tax paying residents (NH has no sales or income tax, and relies on high property taxes) want to exercise their rights to access their beaches in the summer. What I don't understand is why they would want to waste unused parking spaces that could be occupied by out of towners who, you know, might drop a little coin at their local businesses - businesses that are also local tax payers. The parking restrictions are based on arbitrary dates, and not on actual usage by residents. That lays out a big "UNwelcome" mat to visitors.

The lifeguards - oh, the lifeguards. New Hampshire beaches invariably hire summer lifeguards who are apparently college age young people. I think that's great. One thing that's lacking, however, in these young people, is any capacity for judgment and a non-arbitrary application of the rules. Two summers ago, I was flagged down by a lifeguard as I surfed, who informed me of a complaint from a parent that I was surfing too close to her children. When I asked the young lady if she had informed the mother that I was not allowed to surf in the no-surf, bather only, flag marked section roughly fifteen feet to our left, and that her children could safely avail themselves of that area to their heart's content, she replied "yes, she thought that was the surfing area, you're not doing anything wrong". You'll recognize the obvious question - "then why am I having this conversation"? I didn't even bother to ask. The point was a mother, whether right or wrong (wrong in this case) had complained, and the young lifeguard felt it necessary to, sort of, reprimand me for what I was not doing wrong. I continued as I was, where I was - but not without.a feeling of having been unduly singled out.

This past weekend, I attempted to surf at The Wall in North Hampton. I paid for a few hours of parking at the meter, proceeded into the water where there were almost no bathers (maybe one or two scattered - the water is still cold for bare skin), and tried to catch what small waves I could. Within 30 minutes, I was hailed by a lifeguard. When I got near the young man, I asked him what the issue was. He stated "you can still do that, but you have to move down the beach to where the other surfers are". (Earlier, I saw a bunched up group of surfers in an area with little apparent wave action, and wondered why they were there). I immediately scanned the beach to look for flags marking a no-surf area, or even guard towers with signage. There were none. So, I asked the young lifeguard "where are the flags?". He looked around and shrugged "someone just took them down". Again - why am I having this conversation? So, I am to move to an undefined area "somewhere" down the beach, to join a group of sardine packed surfers (that's not dangerous 😒) so that almost no bathers (who haven't complained as far as I know) have this section to themselves? Absolutely ludicrous. Nevertheless, I complied.

As I moved south down the beach, catching what lefts I could to speed the process, I was hailed again. I couldn't believe it. Was this the same lifeguard who pushed me out of my previous spot? No, as it turned out. It was another young man telling me I would need to move farther to some undefined area. I had enough at this point, and as I exited the water past the young lifeguard, I asked him who I could contact to get a refund on my parking fee. He just shrugged his shoulders. I told him no flags marking a no-surf zone were posted, and he just stared at me blankly. You'll understand my consternation when, 20 minutes later, as I was peeling off my wetsuit and stowing my gear, I saw the very same lifeguard walk past me on the sidewalk, carrying two flags - the very ones that were not deployed when he harassed me out of the water. I have since contacted the NH State Department of Parks & Recreation, which manages Hampton Beach. Meredith Collins from that department returned my call promptly, listened attentively, and promised to look into the incident. Hopefully, that bodes well for the future - she seems to be quite competent.

That said, these are not the only two ridiculous interactions I've had with New Hampshire summer lifeguards. I wish I could say otherwise.

The bathers - It is a very peculiar psychology indeed that drives the first bather of the day (when you have risen at the crack of dawn to hit the waves early, and have been surfing a spot for a couple of hours) wades into the ocean directly in front of you - and then stands frozen in panic as the next wave you catch pushes you toward him. The angry scowl that replaces the panic, once he realizes the wave will carry you past him, betrays his complete ignorance. His inability to recognize the fifty yards of unoccupied water to the left and to the right is only matched by his incapacity to appreciate that you were there first - you know, at the crack of dawn, unlike his lazy ass that just rolled out of bed and probably hasn't showered yet. The recognition of surf culture that exists in Hawaii and California (hell, even Florida) is not present in New Hampshire. People are just plain stupid around surfers. Throw in the surf casting fishermen who throw lines out in front of surfers, the yahoos who float out on discount club kayaks or inflated inner tubes, and boogie boarders who haven't figured out you need swim fins to surf waves with those things (how exactly are you going to paddle with both hands holding the board?), and it turns into a circus pretty fast. 

The ocean is for everyone, and I have no issue with rules to accommodate multiple uses, but the rules should apply to bathers and others as equally as they apply to surfers. In New Hampshire, they don't. And towns should recognize that every visitor disgruntled by their policies is much less likely to spend a nickel at local businesses - including surf shops like Summer Sessions and Cinnamon Rainbows  who, I'm sure, have no issue accepting out of town money.   

Give me the colder autumn water, the clearer air, plenty of parking, and better waves. I'm hanging up my surf gear until the fall. It's time to get in some long paddles on the touring 'yak. At least the open water won't have any bathers. Now, I just have to watch out for the jet skis 😉.

- TB on the Water      



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