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Swimming Against The Tide

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Now [I am] officially an outlaw of the sea,” said Patricia Sener of the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers after a run-in with officers at Coney Island Beach & Boardwalk in New York.

The Executive Director Emeritus of Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers and a prolific cold water and marathon swimmer explained the summons that she received for swimming, “Basically, the beaches in New York City are only ‘open’ when there are lifeguards on duty. Swimming is prohibited other times, and signs are posted, but enforcement is sporadic, and seems to come in waves.

I was swimming at 6:30 pm in Brighton Beach. The lifeguards leave the beach at 6:00 pm. It was a very cold windy day on the beach where there were huge rollers.

I think part of the reason we were singled out was because there was no one else in the water, and no one else [was there] to harass.

Enforcement is done by Parks and Recreation of the New York City government. They claimed they were whistling for us to get out, but between my earplugs and the wind, I did not hear them. Plus, we were kinda far out to avoid the breaking waves.

First, there was a guy in a little 3-4 wheeler, then I saw the Parks and Recreation truck [on the beach]. They followed us for about 30 minutes; we were in the water for about 45 minutes.

We got out [of the water]. The guy in the truck told us it was illegal to swim; often these guys come around and say, ‘The ocean is closed.’

He asked to see our identification. I told him truthfully that I did not have my identification. He kept insisting on seeing my ID and told me he’d have to take me down to the precinct to work this out.

I looked him dead in the eye, looked to see if he was wearing a gun; he was not. I asked, ‘For swimming?’ and then quietly told him that was not going to happen. I had kept my cap and goggles on, and frankly, if I hadn’t been with a swim partner who needed to get home to her child, I would have made a break for the ocean and swam to another beach.

I kept telling him that I only bring what I am willing to say goodbye to, as I’ve had stuff stolen off the beach before. He finally got it.

He asked for our names and addresses. I gave him my real name and address, which my friends at the beach thought was foolish, but he was polite and respectful except for the part about taking me down to the precinct. I also managed to talk him into giving us the lesser ticket (US$50), as opposed to the full fine (US$250). He gave both of us a summons.

There was a story I heard about them arresting a guy a few years ago who also had no identification, and he ended up in Rikers Island [New York City’s main jail] over the weekend wearing nothing but a Speedo. There is another story my friend Hsi-Ling was approached during the winter by an overzealous Parks and Rec guys who was screaming at her and actually said, ‘You know, I could shoot you.’

She said simply, ‘Really?’ I believe Cristian smoothed that one over. I wasn’t there, but Hsi-Ling was there when Lesa and I got the summons and told the famous story once again. Official demeanor varies from officer to officer.

The background is that Coney Island has had a lot of drownings over the years because too many kids never learn how to swim and they are not adequately supervised. This is done on the surface ‘to prevent more drownings’, but really to prevent more lawsuits against the city. I would rather see the money that is used for all this overtime for Parks and Rec patrolling the beach.

It has gotten more intense over the years – when it gets hot, there are more trucks and there is one with a huge loudspeaker blaring for hours in four languages about not to get in the water. It feels very much like a police state. When it is hot there are too many people to ticket, so it becomes like a snake as the truck blares up the beach, the swimmers comply and get out, and simply get back in as it passes.

It’s all a ridiculous waste of taxpayer money. In my opinion it would be better served to programs teaching kids in Coney how to swim. I think it has to do with the type of liability insurance that the city, or perhaps the state, has in place to cover lawsuits. I think it does not cover a ‘swim at your own risk’ policy, like other places have.

The argument the Parks and Recreation people use is usually ‘we don’t know if you can swim’ – obviously is not the case if you’ve been watching us handle rough surf for the last 30 minutes with no problem or ‘people will think it is OK to get in the water if they see you in there’ which is a more valid argument, except when we were summoned it was freezing on the beach, the people next to us (who left) were wearing winter coats, and no one was going near the water. So it is once again enforcement for the sake of enforcement and money, and without any real reason.

A lot of people have expressed also they’d rather see our city resources used to keep the boats and jet skis out of the swimming area, which is a real hazard. We’ve had one person injured by a jet ski and need about 30 stitches in the back of their head, and a lot of close calls. So chasing me for swimming seems like a ridiculous waste of resources.

I plan to swim again. I have already warned my swim partner she’s on her own if she decides to get next time.

They are going to have to bring in the big guns to drag me out – Coast Guard or New York Police Department Harbor Patrol. I am going to start bringing cab fare in my cap just in case I need an exit strategy and I’ll leave my back window open if the current is going towards home.”

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