I was at the Peninsula branch of the Queens Library yesterday, and I saw this lovely and informative card sitting at the checkout.
I was, at least initially, delighted. Because: People drown here. Like, every summer. A few times a week, it seems, in July in August, you’ll be sitting on the stoop or making dinner on the grill, and you’ll hear the tell-tale sign of helicopters over the beach. You’ll look at our watch. Yup, it’s after 6/before 10. No lifeguards. Someone is in trouble, possibly dead. You might laugh a cynical laugh or roll your eyes, until you find out the details. There is not a single parent on this peninsula who is not haunted by stories like this one:
“Four cousins wading in knee-deep water at a beach in Far Rockaway, Queens, were swept away yesterday by the fierce currents that have killed so many swimmers there. While their uncle and scores of other people watched helplessly from the shore, a boy struggled back to safety, but three girls were all pulled underwater and drowned.”
You see, those of us who live here know very well that the Atlantic Ocean is not to be trifled with. I’m not talking hurricanes here—I’m talking rip tides that can pull even a strong swimmer out of his or her depth on an otherwise perfect summer day.
Rockaway locals understand this. From the time we are tiny we are either allowed to get tossed and tumbled about in the crashing surf in hope that we will develop what our mothers call “ a healthy fear of the water,” or we are kept out by nervous parents, and pretty much stay out for the rest of our lives. Those of us who fall in love with the sea become strong swimmers, perhaps surfers or lifeguards. We have a hard time staying out of the water, red flag be damned, when we determine conditions to be safe. We are willing to swim at our own risk, because we have an almost innate ability to assess that risk. Few who drown here actually grew up here.
But Rockaway’s beaches are used by more than just Rockaway locals. Millions of visitors come here, from all over the city, and all over the world. Many of them have little understanding of just how treacherous these waters are. This is open ocean, and those who grew up swimming in pools, lakes, in the calm waters of the Caribbean or even at Coney Island, are woefully unprepared for the tides that occur along Rockaway’s shores.
The city’s tactics for dealing with this have been, without exception, short-sighted, poorly executed, and ineffective. Rather than indicated a closed or surfing-only beach with simple graphics that even a child could immediately understand, the Parks department has posted a long and complex set of rules (though they’re improved from seasons past). These signs are placed them far from the water’s edge, and well below eye level, unless you are a toddler in which case you can’t read them anyway. Posters educating swimmers about rip currents finally popped up a few seasons again, but again, up on the boardwalk, by the concessions and bathrooms.
None of this is going to keep anyone out of the water—and especially not someone who has just endured 90 minutes on a packed A Train. So, having given up on educating people without even trying (don’t even get me started on the fact that water safety is not even part of the school curriculum in a city that is defined by water) the city has chosen to police them. Try enjoying a nice beach day with your family, while ill-tempered parks employees called the “Parks Enforcement Patrol” troll the shores on ATVs, screaming at swimmers through megaphones. I call them the Green Meanies.
Anyway, back to my main point. I was delighted to see this little card made up by the Parks Department. But then I read it, and my developmental editor senses started tingling. This was a nice idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The water safety tips are not necessarily beach safety tips. It’s too polite, too watered down. Seriously:
- “Lifeguards keep us safe.” This sounds like a caption from a child’s coloring book.
- “Obey signs and flags” is not all that useful for people who don’t immediately know what a red flag means.
- “Watch out for… Rip Currents” is not all that helpful to people who don’t know what a rip current is.
I couldn’t help myself. I started marking up the thing, the way I would a first draft manuscript, with the intention of sending it back to the Parks Department with a request that they give it another try.
But as I worked, it became clear that this was just the wrong document, written for the wrong audience. Don’t get me wrong–it’s useful information, it’s just not quite what our Rockaway DFDs need. As often happens when I think a manuscript is WRONG ALL WRONG, I got frustrated and just rewrote the whole damned thing. Because these were not the messages I want visitors to know, nor were they presented in a way that I thought visitors would bother to read or internalize them.
I started thinking about the lessons that we locals have all internalized having grown up on this beach. I thought about the way my kids immediately stop what they’re doing when they hear the lifeguard whistle, while the down-for-the-day kids just keep playing. I thought about the way I like to park my blanket on the edge of the surfing beach, so my kids have the option of swimming or boogie boarding on either side of the jetty. I thought about the fact that I know what a rip tide looks like, and the fact that even I have found myself caught in one from time to time. How would anyone who hasn’t grown up here, or on a similar beach, know any of this?
So here is what I think are ten useful tips for enjoying a safe and fun day at Rockaway Beach.
Welcome to Rockaway Beach. Please Don’t Drown.
Respect the Ocean. It Is Stronger Than You Are.
This is not a pool. It is not a lake. This is the Atlantic Ocean—if you fight it, you will lose. Please take some time to understand how to be safe in the ocean, and when it is best to stay out of it.
A Red Flag Means No Swimming.
A red flag indicates that a beach is closed to swimming. It is unprotected and unsafe. If you see a red flag on Rockaway Beach, do not go in the water—not even up to your knees. People wading in water as little knee deep can be swept out in rough surf.
Seriously. Don’t Go in the Water If There’s No Lifeguard.
People drown in Rockaway—almost always when there is no lifeguard present. Lifeguards are on duty from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. Some beaches do not have lifeguards at all. Please, please pay attention to the red flags.
Listen to the Lifeguard.
When you hear the lifeguard’s whistle, stop what you’re doing and pay attention. If you’re not sure about a rule or water conditions, ask a lifeguard.
Watch Your Children.
It is incredibly easy for children to get lost along Rockaway’s shore—and there’s nothing a scary as losing track of a child on a crowded beach. Keep them within arm’s reach when in the water, and keep your eye on them on the sand. Teach your child to find a lifeguard immediately if he or she gets lost—they are there to help.
Understand Rip Currents.
Rip currents are narrow channels of fast moving water, and are common along Rockaway Beach. Even experienced swimmers have found themselves caught in these powerful currents, and struggled to get back to shore. If you find yourself caught in a rip current, do not panic. Stay calm, and swim parallel to the shore. Remember, rip currents are usually pretty narrow—sometimes only a few yards across. Once you are out of the rip current, you can swim back to shore.
Surfing Beaches Are for Surfing Only.
There are only two designated surfing beaches in all of New York City, and they are both in Rockaway. Please leave them for the surfers. Surfers will not appreciate your being in their way once they catch a wave, and you will not enjoy being hit by a nine foot long fiberglass board. If you find yourself on one of the designated surfing beaches, just walk one block east or west to find a safe spot to swim. If you’re going in with a board, make sure you know what you’re doing, and if you don’t, spend a few dollars to learn from someone who does.
Don’t Leave Your Street Smarts on the Subway.
A day in Rockaway is a great diversion from city life—but remember, you are still in New York City. Don’t leave your things—especially not your phone or your wallet—unattended on the beach!
Be Safe in the Sun.
Stay hydrated. Apply sunscreen, and re-apply frequently, especially if you’ve been swimming.) You will not regret it at the end of the day.
Learn to Swim. Then Learn to Swim in the Ocean.
It’s never to early—or too late—to learn to swim. Visit nyc.gov/parks to learn about free and low-cost swimming lessons. Once you’ve mastered the basics, try them out at our beaches, paying attention to the rules above!
This is the most essential information I wish every down-for-the-day visitor knew, the Rockaway Beach lesson I’d like to see in a non-existent water safety unit that should be taught (but isn’t) in every New York City school, every grade, every June. This is what I’d like to see not printed on handouts at the public library or posted below eye-level on the boardwalk, but plastered on subway platforms, bus stops, and in every A-train car from April through October. People stuck on the subway will read messages over and over just because they have nothing better to do; they internalize those messages and remember them.
A well executed PSA campaign can have a bigger impact than all the fist shaking and megaphones in the world. Just ask this guy, who foiled a terrorist plot because, you know, if you see something, say something. Or the state of Texas, where litter was reduced by more than 30 percent after the launch of the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign. I myself will carry a wad of garbage home from Manhattan in my purse rather than dropping it on the street because Woodsy the Owl taught me to “Give a hoot, don’t pollute” back in the 1970s.
I challenge my fellow locals to join me in this vigilante PSA campaign to make our beaches safer—and hopefully render the Green Meanies obsolete in the process.