The Fish Story

The Beach Umbrellas, My Friend, Are Blowing in the Wind; Jumbo Bass and Blues Making a Dang Decent Spring Showing

By JAY MANN | May 08, 2019
File Photo by: Jack Reynolds Beach umbrellas in Beach Haven.

Surf City — I was dubbed a bit of a hero last summer, compliments of a highly thankful gal who was that close to meeting up with the nasty pole end of a high-flying runaway beach umbrella. And it was truly a missile on a mission, fueled by a fierce and sudden gust of wind. Being advantageously close by, I headed the projectile off at the pass, which ended the flight of the multicolor anti-sun device within maybe 5 feet of the sunning 20-something gal.

She was oblivious to it closing in. Nobody had yelled a warning since the freaky gust had most beach folks scrambling on their own gather-up missions, as crap flew all over the place. However, it sure seemed a hush fell over the beach when it began registering just how close to impact the sun-protector-turned-hunter had come to, well, leaving a mark. I’ll sidestep suggesting she was on the brink of being impaled … but things were pointing in that direction. The umbrella’s quite-portly owner, who had been rather humorously a-chase, was mortified at the close calledness, apologizing profusely amid his gasps for air.

Over my beach-ified life, marked by decades of lifeguarding, I’ve become quite acquainted with beach umbrellas gone ballistic, having seen flights of feral umbrellas end very badly – the worst being a sickening facial injury befalling an older gentleman who had been napping in a beach chair, an open Tom Clancy novel equally at rest across his belly. The business end of the umbrella pole left him with a fully gaping cheek gouge and broken teeth, along with a mild concussion. I was a little late on that one, though I saw the attack unfold.

Just last week, the subject of airborne beach umbrellas rolled into D.C., where U.S. Senators Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) initiated official efforts to alert fellow Americans to the perils from beach umbrellas gone bad. Between 2008-2017, over 31,000 people were treated at hospitals for umbrella-related injuries, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Many of those were eye related.

“As you know, beach umbrellas provide beachgoers the benefits of shade on hot and sunny days at the shore. Yet, a burst of wind can make these summer accessories harmful to those around them,” the senators wrote in a letter to Consumer Product Safety Commission Chair Elliot Kaye. “Over the last several years, reports of horrific injuries resulting from beach umbrellas have splashed across the media.”

For our Sen. Menendez, the umbrella threat hits close to home. He represents a number of NJ folks injured by airborne beach umbrellas, most recently last summer when a British tourist in Seaside Heights was pierced in the ankle – and sent to the hospital. A couple weeks later, a woman in Ocean City, Md., was hospitalized after being umbrella-pierced just below the collarbone while serenely sitting on the beach. In her case, medical technicians had to leave the umbrella imbedded in her body for the ride to the hospital. Yes, they cut off all but the imbedded part of the pole, though that would have been some sort of odd-looking hospital arrival if they hadn’t. As dedicated as doctors and nurses are, they wouldn’t have missed that photo op.

In 2015, Bethany Beach, Del., visitor Ed Quigley lost his eye to a tumbling umbrella. The umbrella was powered by an estimated 40 mph wind gust. “My brother-in-law yelled there is a beach umbrella blowing in the wind, I turned and it went right into my eye,” Quigley said.

While his wound was bad enough, medical authorities treating the man said it could have been far worse. Had the umbrella’s angle of flight been more horizontal, the pole could have penetrated the brain cavity through the eye socket.

In 2016, a fatal incident occurred in Virginia Beach, as beachgoer Lottie Michelle Belk, 55, was celebrating her birthday and marriage anniversary. While lying on the sand late in the afternoon, Belk was fatally impaled in the chest by a windblown beach umbrella. It hit with such force that it broke through her rib cage, penetrating the left ventricle of her heart. According to the Centers for Disease Control, she is the only recorded death from a wind-driven beach umbrella.

Forensic scientists did follow-up research on the Belk accident, replicating the incident under lab conditions, using a similar beach umbrella. Assisted by data from the Weather Service, which recorded wind gust speeds on the day of the accident at between 22 and 28 mph, calculations indicated the umbrella pole hit the woman with 1,000 pounds of force, meaning its pointed tip had a puncture force of 16,000 pounds per square inch, easily on par with a mercenary spear thrust.

To be sure, high-power wind gusts are no strangers to our beachline. Neither are beach umbrellas, the numbers of which have soared – no morbid pun intended – due to skin cancer fears. My timely grab of the umbrella last summer was one of easily half a dozen serious breakaways I saw on just the small area of beach I frequent on weekends.

While an eventual federal advisory on beach umbrellas is fine and good – make that excellent and good – one has to wonder about the obvious: How legally responsible is the umbrella owner? Making a polar opposite parallel, it’s akin to drivers being legally responsible for ice on the top of their vehicles, lest a chunk fly off and strike a sunbather, or something like that.

One of the few cases of flying umbrella lawsuits ended in 2006, with Phyllis Caliano-Bahaj of NYC receiving $200,000 in damages from New York state. Her case began with a 1999 accident at a state park, where an umbrella, one of those bulky wooden types, was wind gusted off a nearby lifeguard stand. It hit Caliano-Bahaj on her forehead, resulting in 13 stitches and permanent nerve damage.

While I’m anything but a litigious person, for a poorly secured beach umbrella pole that causes serious bodily harm, there will be hell, and me, to pay.

To that point, most breakaways involve under-secured umbrellas. In fact, many a novice and/or numbnuts beachgoer will barely poke an umbrella into the sand – and rush off to the water. In the case of that nasty ass one I snagged mid-flight, it had merely been lain on its side. That umbrella lean thing is highly common.

A prime factor in umbrella escapes stems from them being left unattended, though even I’d balk at hearing, “Sorry, hon, you can’t come into the water with the rest of the family … someone has to stay and watch the umbrella.” It all comes down to either putting it down when walking off or driving that sucker so deeply into the sand it won’t even think about going rogue.

Admittedly, it’s no simple task to soundly emplace a beach umbrella. Take it from my weekend beach volleyball crew, all of us well versed at beach umbrellaing. It almost takes a team effort to batten down our umbrella row, and we still have to make an occasional run of it.

In recent years, The SandPaper has hyped several umbrella anchoring inventions. Also, many beach umbrellas are now designed to screw into the sand. That screw-thing kinda works – or not so much.

I’ll suggest that not only should an umbrella be deeply driven into the sand by the muscle in the family, be that man or woman, but then it needs to be doubly secured with an independent anchoring system, especially on gust-prone days. Of course, they don’t call them gusts for nothing. They truly come out of the blue.

My anchoring creativity award goes to a Harvey Cedars family I saw filling an emptied beach bag with sand and tying it to one of the umbrella stretchers. No lawsuit for them. So, who’s going to make a million by devising a beach bag with a rope system so it can do double duty as a beach umbrella anchor?

MOWER BLADE AWARENESS: (I won’t get into details on why I’m putting this odd little alert out there.)

On Long Beach Island, the last of us with actual lawns are commencing with mowing season 2019, with a hardy “Let’s see if I can get this bugger running.” Prior to pushing forward, please (!) do a thorough lawn walkabout to make sure there are no cottontail nests/kits/litters in the mow zone.

Since eastern cottontails can have up to a half-dozen litters a year, sometimes containing 12 young, such look-abouts are advisable for many months to come. Making matters way worse for us green grass Island types, the graveling over of more and more yards means odds are increasingly high that you’ll find baby rabbits in your grasses. The smallest of them make no effort to run.

Please gently move any wee ones to a safe rotary-free zone. No, a mother rabbit won’t abandon a moved litter if it’s kept in the same general vicinity.

I don’t know about contacting animal control when you find a litter. My main intent is to keep them from the blade.

YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS!: I must slip into a temporary state of deep negativity, even though I’m not generally black/bleak of heart. It’s all about striped bass. Big surprise.

As LBI bassing has finally shown, after a general skunking for much of last year, the fun hooking is being marred by an ugly input of anti-keep sentiment. It’s as if a legally kept bass is a crime against both angling and nature. That’s bulls***!

Firstly, regulations are meant to both restrict overfishing while encouraging the keeping of fish. Striped bass regulations are predicated on a far larger ecological-balance concept, though that overriding ecological aspect seldom comes up much.

Secondly, keepable/harvestable bass have been earned by anglers, via the catch-and-release of what amounts to huge numbers of sub-legal fish.

The escalating fury over a collapsing striped bass biomass is primarily based on the weeping and gnashing of teeth over a paucity of trophy fish. And, to be sure, there has been a downtick in the taking of fish over, say, 40 pounds. But the trophy fish drop should not be taken out on the anglers who are thrilled and quite satisfied with fishing and keeping legal fish, of which there are hundreds of thousands in the 28- to 38-inch range.

Even when new and likely untenable regulations come into force next year, the nonsense about belittling the keeping of allowable bass must end. Keep what you’re allowed to keep. It’s truly for the betterment of the entire ecosystem.

RUNDOWN: Those chopper/slammer/gator bluefish are making surf calls; boats are nabbing some also. They’re typically lean and mean, but only in-between, numbers-wise. In fact, I’ll go glass half-empty by saying they’re not up to the snuff we saw over the past few springs. Not sure where the spring cocktail/tailor blues, once springtime regulars, have gone, short time passing. That’s not good in the bluefish longer run.

Striper bassing is abuzz. I’m getting so many positive surfcasting reports that I almost declared a surfcasting alert at my blogsite:

Boat anglers have regularly been into the cows, as have chosen surfcasters – the suds being pickier about who it awards larger bass. Charters and headboats are steadily on fish. Tackle shop in-house bassing contests are showing a goodly number of beachside bass weigh-ins. Make sure to sign up for many a sweet striper prize.

The schoolie bass count, which had also been quite abuzz, has dropped off significantly, possibly indicating a rapid move northward, though so-called “resident stripers” have broken from the northbound pack to hang here all summer, especially around the Barnegat Inlet jetties, where grass shrimp-chumming boat fishermen, along with spearfishermen, toy with them.

I can’t see the current bass/blue bite bolting all that fast due to the astounding amount of forage a-swim, mainly in the form of bunker, but also crabs, shrimp, mantis, sand eels, large spearing, hake, small flounder of assorted kinds and even squid. Those have all been found in the bellies of cleaned, mid-sized stripers caught in New Jersey.

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