“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.”
― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
When I wrote this commentary on last summer’s drowning in the Wave almost a year ago, I hoped that, by now the town would finally have implemented some form of beach safety protocols. There were some good ideas batted around by folks like Andy Zahn and Debbie Bender, yet during the time between last summer’s tragedy and now, the Town leadership including Mayor George Proto, Vice-Mayor Chris Bannon and Councilwoman Natali has done absolutely nothing. What may have seemed like an outlier last summer, has proven to be closer to the middle of the bell curve—once again, last weekend’s tragic drowning should have never happened.
The Town’s agenda is put forth by the Mayor—overwhelmed by parking spaces, beach blanket bingo and efforts to keep dogs off the beach, a serious attempt to create a robust beach safety protocol never made the cut. Due to Proto’s unwillingness to take on the axis that is ensconced within the walls of Cape Charles power and politics, a generous portion of blame for this weekend’s drowning falls right on his shoulders. The town had to understand that by expanding the beach and moving it that much closer to the channel was also making it that much more dangerous. Also, where was Brent Manuel, our 90k+ town manager in all this? Job one of government is to ensure the safety and well-being of its citizens. When Joe Vaccaro became town manager, the first thing he did was drive the beach, and he noticed that there were no safety protocols in place. One of his first acts was to implement phase I of that plan. Typically, his unusual competence and due diligence, so seemingly out of place (and frightening to some) was rewarded with a very suspect termination notice.
In March, I spoke before the Town Council, and literally begged them to please, don’t let beach safety slip through your fingers, we can’t afford to drop the ball on this. But, we have. Had this breach of public trust happened in Japan, a culture that places personal honor and self-sacrifice above personal gain and well-being, the parties responsible for this failure would own it and resign. I don’t think there’s much chance of that happening in the new Cape Charles.
Why are visitors coming to Cape Charles? For some, maybe the quiet, the quaintness, the off the beaten path nature—most come for the water and the beach (one of the last public beaches left on the Shore). Given that, why was the Cape Charles Business Association so notably mute on the subject of making our most lucrative asset safer for visitors? Given the tills are stuffed by the influx of tourists in the summer; you would think there would have been at least a modicum of effort on their part to protect their customers. At the last council meeting, many in the CCBA worked themselves into a tizzy over a stupid web site—maybe some of this energy would have been better spent putting the thumb screws on council to finally enact measures that would protect all those kids that buy ice cream cones in town. The Shanty and Cape Charles Yacht Center, two of our most influential businesses, and whose profits are directly tied to the tourists that come here, never made a single request that the town step up when it comes to protecting their customers.
In any case, until the Mayor and Council can prove that the beach is safe, it should be closed. Unless they are willing to post the police there all day–keep it closed.
Moving forward, the use of warning signs and swim rope may be marginally useful, but they are not answer. Kids ignore signs, and will swim right under the rope. I know I would have. The way kids (and some adults) ignored the ‘Do not climb on the Rocks’ signs that used to be on the breakwaters proved that. Unless the town is willing to create a beach safety team to monitor when people are getting too close to the channel, then everything else is just a waste of time. At the Outer Banks, they can post all the red flags (dangerous undertow) they want, but unless the beach patrol is there to whistle you out of the water, people will take dangerous and unnecessary risks. And that’s the point. It’s not about open water rescue, but a concentrated effort to warn and keep folks away from danger.
The beach patrol should be a group of 12 trained summer employees, enough for four teams of three. Two teams a day, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon, 7 days a week. To fund this, business license and fees should be doubled, and all of the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) should go towards funding the BSA (Beach Safety Association). This is not hard to do—it just takes a nickel, integrity and some sweat equity.
Pope Francis, in his encyclical said, “When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently. This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers.” That may be partially true, but real change and social justice will never happen in Cape Charles unless you can somehow tie it to money. Until a fully-fledged beach patrol is put in place, and the beaches are safe, Cape Charles should be boycotted completely.
But that won’t happen. As Salinger wrote, “People never notice anything.” Unperturbed by the loss, the beat goes on with beach exercise classes and summer games. That is human nature; I guess we just sit around and wait for next time.