Skip to main content
Publish date:


Every year in late May and early June 40 million Americans emerge from their winter burrows and commence a slow march to the sea. When they arrive, some of them break out deck chairs and beach umbrellas and spend the day curled happily in the sun. Others, like the tiny clam diggers on the Cape Cod salt flat below, and the fishermen and campers shown on the subsequent pages, use the beach as a place for discovery and adventure. In his story on the pages following these pictures Coles Phinizy describes these and other pleasures, and tells how to get the most fun and relaxation from a visit to the water's edge.


It was 5 o'clock, a beautiful hour on the beach. The sand and the froth of the breakers were gathering gold from the waning sun. The southerly wind that had chopped up the water at midday had slacked off until it could barely be felt on the cheek. By this hour most of the crowd had wrestled their beach chairs into a portable state and had departed, the mothers instructing the fathers, the fathers barking at the children and the children fretting because they had been forbidden to take home dead crabs and other intriguing, decomposing treasures of the sea.

For 50 yards along the beach in front of me herring gulls and ringbills walked stiffly in the shallows. On the shining esplanade of sand a skirmish line of sandpipers and ringed plovers raced along the shifting edge of the water. With the retreat of a wave, a sand bug flushed up by a gull escaped and tumbled seaward, finally getting a grip on the hard sand and digging in. Beyond the break, terns were diving on bait fish, like bright paper scraps caught in a dust devil. An osprey swung in over the land, winging westward in a hurry with a weakfish in his talons.

Five o'clock is late for an osprey to be out. Though tardy, this one was no fool. I saw him find what he was looking for, a lingering trace of thermal over the sun-baked land. Riding the thermal a quarter mile up on set wings, he then started the long glide that would carry him, with barely a wing beat, six miles to his home in the pines across the bay. As I watched the osprey, in the corner of my eye I picked up little movements in the sand hummocks above the tide line. Now that the vibration of the bathers' feet had diminished, the sand crabs were coming back to the air, digging out from under the beach that had been trampled all day. (I once saw one of these crabs making his way back into this world from directly below the mouth of an overturned pop bottle. Twice he got a freshet of grape soda in the face.)

I had no wristwatch, but I knew it was not yet the dinner hour. The herring gulls are dependable timekeepers. The moment the sun went below land, with no sound the gulls would leave, cross the rooftops and settle in the back marshes. And passing them, bound from marsh to beach, on the very edge of night, would come the black skimmers to try their luck with their long bills in the ocean wash.

I may never see that small Jersey beach again, nor, for that matter, know so agreeable an hour anywhere. At this moment, as I try to put the recollections of that hour with fair exactness through a typewriter, I am stranded well above the high-water mark, in the middle of a spring afternoon, in the middle of a small room, eight feet by nine, surrounded by the usual unsettled debts of an ordinary man. On the desk beside me there is a lamp I must repair. The wastebasket needs emptying. There are letters I should answer, bills I should pay, five books I should read and a three-foot stack of magazines I should throw out (the magazines fell over on the cat yesterday). By the door hangs a barometer that has always stubbornly forecast "storm" despite the frequent pummelings I give it. Atop my dictionary there is a pair of swim fins that I have dragged over coral and barnacled rock so often they look as if a piranha had been teething on them. On the desk before me stands a mosaic of a fish that has the face of a Beau Gregory but looks like a sergeant major the closer you get to the tail. Except for these oddments—the strangely dimorphic fish, the swim fins and the gloomy barometer—there is nothing around me to suggest water. At this moment I am in a suitable bone-dry setting to try to examine objectively why it is I truly love the sea.

At dinner two years ago a psychiatrist—and he had had only one drink at the time—claimed my love of water was a fixation. Very probably, he said, it was a substitute for the love I had for my rocking horse when I was 3.1 never had a rocking horse, nor do I recall ever being deeply involved with anybody else's. At any rate, I claim the affection I have for the sea and its shore is something I have never felt for any horse.

The small Jersey beach that I have known on and off for 30 years gets heavy use in the summer. It's my guess there are more than 20 million people living in hot, miasmatic cities within half a day's drive of it. On an August day the small beach is crowded and not an attractive place—a riot of children and a tangle of adults encamped in chairs under a gaudy canopy of umbrellas. But by 4:30 the encampment starts to break up, and the original titleholders take over. The gulls and sanderlings get to use the shore freely for an hour or two until the dark messengers of the night, the skimmers, come winging in. A beach like that one can stand very heavy use (and some abuse) without losing its natural good looks. One night's rest, a change of tides, and the beach is bright and shiny, ready for the next assault.

It is because the sea shows very little wear even along its heavily used edges that I prefer it to any part of land. The land simply does not have enough resilience: the traffic at a popular beach is more than any equal area of woodland could stand. If it were used like a beach for a month, the woods would be a shambles and would need a full change of seasons to pull itself together.

This past April, as we drove through the back country of New Jersey, through sweet green meadows and new plowing, my wife caught an unspringlike odor in the air. She consulted the road map, tested the air again and asked, "Is that Trenton I smell?" For me—and for some others, I suspect—travel on land has lost its appeal now that the big cities are reaching out, hitting the traveler in the nose while he is still outside the corporate limits.

The modern city offends not only the senses; it sticks in the pores, it gets in the hair. Whether he earns a living selling a new brand of soap or merely selling himself, the city man is constantly marching to the sound of drummers whose faces he never sees and whose motives he may not trust. He can count himself lucky if he finishes his term in the warrens of the city without acquiring the vision of a mole and the soul of a stunted pecan. For those who feel the need of a day's relief from the absurd demands of the city, there is no longer an easy escape by any land route. Around the bend in the road now there is another gas pump, another eatery, another music box playing the same tune. The remaining worthwhile land wildernesses are too far removed from most high-population centers. The ocean, on the other hand, is quite close to many big cities, so close to some that, egged on by the wind, it occasionally jumps the sea wall and rolls right through town.

On a crowded city beach a man is sometimes obliged to sit in the shadow of the Ferris wheel, hard by the hurdy-gurdy and the popcorn stand, but he has the option, at least, of turning his back on such things. In front of him the sea stretches to the horizon and on beyond the horizon to another horizon, and on past that one to still another, so that the man who wets a foot anywhere is, in a real sense, in contact with the whole world of water. If he can shake the city from his head as readily as he shucks his clothes, after half a day at the beach he is susceptible to new and improbable thoughts—a sucker for some new excitement.

I recall now that on the August afternoon when the osprey flew past carrying a weakfish, I had been waiting on the beach to teach a 12-year-old boy named Joe Horstman to ride a surfboard. Joe Horstman, being human and governed by more complicated forces than are the gulls and skimmers, had been delayed. (He was detained by the Philadelphia Phillies, who had fought long and hard on television that day before blowing the game in the top of the 14th.)

On the first wave he tried that afternoon, Joe Horstman overpaddled. The wave was too ripe when it picked him up. As the board plunged down the steep wall of water, Horstman went his separate way, diving wisely and safely clear. The board disappeared, then shot back into the air, twisting, turning and shining wet, like a salmon rising out of the white boil of a cascade. On his next try Horstman's timing was right and his footwork good. He kept the board trimmed to the slope, then eased the tip up slightly to keep it from digging in as the curl of the wave came down on him. He rode the board through the gentle second break and, with the aplomb of an Hawaiian king, stepped off in six inches of water. I learned to surfboard five years ago in Sydney, Australia on the same beach where the Olympian, Duke Kahanamoku of Hawaii, first taught the Australians in 1915. The board on which I taught Joe Horstman last summer was one I borrowed from a transplanted southern California surfer who brought it east largely—I think—for sentimental reasons. Thus, counting borrowed board and borrowed skills, Joe Horstmam's surfboard education in Jersey was under the joint sponsorship of southern California, Australia and Hawaii.

Thirty years ago in Jersey I first learned to ride waves without a board—to body-surf, as it is generally known. Dick Hughes, superintendent of the Atlantic City Beach Patrol, tells me that the correct body-surfing technique was brought to the Jersey coast by Duke Kahanamoku shortly after World War I. In this morning's mail I received a letter from Steve Gelfond of Elkins Park, Pa. Gelfond, who learned to ride Jersey waves on the same borrowed southern California board as Joe Horstman, has come onto a blueprint of a surf ski, a specialized sort of craft that the Australians designed for steep waves. Gelfond wants my opinion: Is it worth building a surf ski to use in Jersey? I think it is and, if Gelfond is any sort of builder, very probably this coming summer on one Jersey beach bathers will be body-surfing, riding boards and surf-skiing—enjoying three sports borrowed from distant Pacific coasts.

I cite this random knowledge about Jersey wave-riding by way of pointing out that the exotic sports dramatized in the travel ads are often possible on a local coast. Every ordinary and familiar beach is, I feel, an exotic shore. It is this feeling, more than anything, that explains the affection I have for the sea. On world maps the oceans and lesser bodies of water are distinguishable by name, but the exact boundaries of most of them are quite vague. There is in fact only a single, worldwide sea, whose distant and different parts are as inseparable as Rand and McNally. The water off Brisbane, Australia, where I saw two whales in love, is inseparable from that of the Pacific atoll lagoon where I saw two angelfish fighting. The water that flows through the great cave of Wakulla in north Florida and nourishes the coral bastions of the Red Sea is the same that frequently gets into my sinuses and nourishes the fungus that currently infects my left ear. The water that threw me at a ledge off the island of Oahu four years ago is the same that caught me when I fell out of a boathouse window in Ventnor, N.J. in 1935.

The sea everywhere has an interesting potential for adventure and misadventure. To experience either, it is necessary first to get in rhythm with the sea, and this is best done by ignoring most of what is said about it by those who do not know it. On the afternoon that Joe Horstman learned to ride a surfboard a man and a lady—both about 40 years old—walked up to me. They inquired about the boy paddling the board beyond the break, and I told them he was waiting for a wave to ride.

"Where's he from? Hawaii?" the man asked.

"Philadelphia," I said.

"Then how come he's riding waves?" the man asked.

"It never occurred to him that he couldn't," I said.

"I got a brother spent three years in Hawaii," the man said. "The waves are different. You can't ride Jersey waves."

"The boy out there believes he can," I said. "He even believes in the Phillies."

"Hah." The man raised a hand in despair. "Today the Philadelphia Phillies tied it up and then blew it." The man withdrew, the lady following him, listening to his further reasons why Jersey waves were no good for riding.

The capacity of the beach to entertain and to rejuvenate is never exploited by many who use it regularly. Ten yards from the tide line many beachgoers are no more in touch with the sea than with the outer planets. There are several reasons for this. Too many Americans, Easterners particularly, come to the beach loaded with excess baggage and unfinished business. I once observed a family of four who conducted the following business at the beach: a long discussion of the crab grass on the front lawn, followed by one large-size, two-sided argument about who paid the bar bill the night before, followed by one smaller, four-sided argument that had to do with buying (or selling) a car. The family had brought the following baggage to the beach: a rug six by eight (a real rug, not a blanket), two full-length aluminum cots, one folding chair that unfolded too far (it was not used), an umbrella that fell over twice (giving rise to one argument), a transistor radio (the daughter dropped it in the water), a Victrola, a basket of sweaters, another basket of something, two straw hats, a plastic aircraft carrier, a plastic rocket launcher (Mother sat on this, breaking it) and a four-pound Sunday edition of The New York Times, several sheets of which got away in the wind and wrapped themselves around bathers' legs.

The aluminum cot and The New York Times (worthy public servant that it is) are equally unworthy items on the beach. When a man is using aluminum to suspend himself 10 inches off the ground and simultaneously following the Times's great news staff to all the troubled corners of the world, why bother to be at the beach?

To rediscover the beach, I recommend leaving at home all cots, chairs, umbrellas, blankets, bedding, music boxes, reading matter, and all land-born arguments, whether they involve the steady march of crab grass across the front lawn or the equally sorry state of world affairs. The beachgoer who strips himself of such burdens and starts fresh feels at first like a naked babe. As his eyes begin to focus properly for the first time on the world of the sea, he usually starts accumulating baggage again, but different items—things he can use to enjoy the natural offerings of the beach. The worthiest item for the novice bather is not a bed mattress but an air mattress on which anyone past 6 can ride waves. The happiest child on a beach, generally speaking, is not the one with the plastic aircraft carrier but the one with a good sand bucket. The bucket is a product of the Bronze Age, yet in one morning last summer, in the middle of the space age, I saw a 6-year-old use his bucket a dozen ways, notably to carry sand, to collect sand dollars, to keep minnows alive and to pour water in the ear of his sleeping father.

The emphasis on the American beach today is on safety rather than on the wholesome and exciting use of the water (there are a number of beaches that can take exception to this charge, notably those of Hawaii, southern California and Fort Lauderdale in Florida). The youth on the beach today has his elders to caution him, the lifeguards to rescue him (and a transistor radio plugged in one ear to entertain him), but no one to teach him to ride an air mattress when he is 8 years old, or to teach him how to body-surf at 10, to ride a board at 12 or to man a surf boat at 14. The surf sports are as good for the body as any tasteless schedule of push-ups, press-ups and leg-ups at a gym. I submit as proof of this the surfing program that Australia long ago incorporated into its national vitality.

I recognize the special problem that large resorts have: an unwieldy mass of bathers who are not competent enough to read the sea and must be protected from it and from more active bathers using surfboats and boards. However, I have never seen any 10-mile strip of beach so crowded that a fair portion of it could not be set aside for active sportsmen who have earned the right to live a trifle dangerously.

The most sensible use of water that I have found on any crowded beach this side of Hawaii is that in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a resort that on peak weekends has more than 50,000 using its shore (and perhaps 10,000 more using inland and offshore waters). Unlike Miami Beach, where hotel construction has eliminated nearly onemile of the seven-mile beach, Lauderdale allows no construction on its strand—no boardwalk, no popcorn stands, no piers, no absurd concrete esplanades surrounding chlorinated pools. Lauderdale believes in sand and ocean. The swimmer there is not hemmed in by ropes. He can enter and leave the water anywhere, dunk in the shallows or swim over his head, so long as he stays within 50 yards of shore. He can, as the Lauderdale lifeguards put it, "swim north to New York, or south to Miami, but not east to Spain." The skin-diver is welcome on the Lauderdale beach provided he uses flotation gear and stakes his area with the diver's flag. The water skier can use the ocean so long as he stays 75 yards off. The sand at Lauderdale is coarse and coralline. It clings. Yet in the days I have walked five miles there, I have rarely seen a beach chair. The people sit on the sand or on towels.

The natural offerings of the Fort Lauderdale beach are not exceptional. It remains an asset to our public welfare largely, I think, because it is in the hands of men who know the water. Tom Lamar, the assistant city manager responsible for Lauderdale's recreation program, is better known in the sports world as coach of the U.S. girl swimmers at the 1955 Pan American Games (his girl teams have won more than 300 dual meets, lost none). Jaret Jordan, director of Lauderdale's beach patrol and its educational program in aquatics, is a veteran surfer of the Maryland coast. The chief of the harbor police, Sergeant Roy Jansen, is a boatman by choice, a cop by occupation (he built his first boat of tongue-and-groove pine and swiped his mother's shower curtain to sail across Manhattan's East River).

The decline of the vigorous life on the American beach is rarely the fault of the lifeguards who patrol it, but rather of men with more authority who sit in stuffy rooms in tune with a different set of values. While I was examining the problem recently, the lifeguard captain of a resort city considerably larger than Fort Lauderdale told me that an organized program of water and surf sports such as Lauderdale endorses and Australia lives by is a good idea, a corking one. The lifeguards of his patrol, the captain assured me, would be pleased to belong to a positive program rather than serving only as herd dogs. His city, he claimed, could spare the space, and city hall probably would approve it until the hotel owners protested, charging favoritism, charging this, charging that. "Don't quote me, or at least please don't name me," the lifeguard captain said, "but these hotels have been here a long time and I have been here just as long, but of all us old hands, I guess I am the only one still young and foolish enough to know how much the sea has to offer."



During the quiet, windless moment before twilight Race Point on Cape Cod is a lonely place. The sun worshipers are gone; the shore is empty save for the lights of a beach buggy and a fisherman who tries his luck in the last glow of day.


From spring to fall, Playa del Rey on the southern California coast does double duty. In the evening, bathers are joined by picnickers, 6,000 strong, who build fires, sing and charcoal-broil frankfurters, hamburgers and steaks.


As the low sun of the late afternoon loses its warmth, southern California bathers wrap themselves in blankets and towels after taking a final dip in the darkening surf.